One woman's own space odyssey

Passed/Failed Helen Sharman; Helen Sharman OBE, 35, became the first Briton in space when she joined the Soviet space station, Mir, in orbit in 1991. She now works as a lecturer and presenter on scientific subjects. On 16 March, she presents Fantasy in Space and Time, a performance for schools at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic
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The Independent Online
Moon-struck: When I was six, my father took me into the garden, pointed to the Moon and said, "There are people walking on it at this moment." But to me this was no more or less fascinating than everything else, than that the grass is green, for example.

Mop infants: At Grenoside Junior and Infants in Sheffield I was very anxious to please, and my biggest memory is the devastation I felt when I had forgotten my handkerchief; you had to line up and show it to your teacher. In Top Infants, when I spilt my milk and couldn't find a mop, I heard my teacher say, "She is a dumb one, that Helen". I remembered those words when I got my O-levels, A-levels, degree...

There is Greenhill far away: We moved to the south of Sheffield when I was eight and I went to Greenhill school. I felt very, very new; I didn't have a leotard to do PE in because we'd always done it in vest and pants. I was assigned a friend, who remains a friend to this day.

Shock horror: She was in a different class at Jordanthorpe, now called Meadowhead, the local comprehensive which we both went on to. We weren't streamed until 13, and it was an eye-opener to arrive at a school where some people could not read. It was very good for me, an insight that some people were different, but in no way worse. In the sixth form, I used to get out of general studies lessons by doing remedial teaching.

In space no one can hear you groan: Between 13 and 18 I had a wonderful, enthusiastic maths teacher called Mr Wilson who, when I made a stupid mistake, said, "Oh, you potato-cake!" (I think it's something you buy in Sheffield fish-and-chip shops.) Much later, in space, I realised I had put some films, which were to go outside the station, the wrong way round in their frames and I said, "Sharman, you potato-cake!" Sergei, my engineer, never really understood what I meant.

Spaced-out syllabus: I was becoming more rebellious and independent. A few months before my O-levels, I was reading the biology syllabus and discovered some topics we hadn't done, so I read them up - and they came up in the exam. I got pretty much straight A grades. I did quite OK in my A-levels - maths, physics and chemistry - and went to Sheffield University to read chemistry. University was a fairly studious time; you had lectures in the morning and lab work in the afternoons and then had to write up your experiments. A lot of things in the students' union happened at lunch time, when I was grabbing a sandwich. I got a 2:1.

I'm an urban spaceperson: At Star City, near Moscow, we started off learning Russian, ballistics and astronomy. It was very back-to-school: classroom and blackboard. Then there was weightless training in a plane - the pilot does a nose-dive and you feel weightless for 23 seconds. There were also medical tests in a centrifuge where you experienced up to 8G.

Sax appeal: I want some learning in my life, where I can go and be taught something.

I'm now learning the saxophone and starting a bit of Debussy. No, I shan't be playing with the London Philharmonic just yet.

Interview by

Jonathan Sale