'Don't forget to look out of the window': Britain's first astronaut Helen Sharman's advice to Major Tim Peake
Helen Sharman flew to the Russian Mir space station in 1991
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Monday 27 May 2013
Britain’s first and only astronaut to fly under the UK flag has some simple advice to Major Tim Peake who will soon become only the second wholly-British astronaut to make it into space: don’t forget to look out of the window when you’re up there.
Helen Sharman, a private citizen who flew to the Russian Mir space station in 1991 at the age of 27, said that Major Peake will have all the training and technical help he will need for his mission. But there is one recommendation she herself remembers from a former astronaut.
“The advice I was given was just to make sure you look out of the window occasionally. It’s something no astronaut ever gets tired of doing,” Ms Sharman told The Independent.
“You get this constantly changing image of the Earth spinning below. You get these fabulous views and you get time to think about that. It will be something that will stay with him for the rest of his life,” she said.
The phenomenal Twitter success of Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who recently returned from a mission on the International Space Station, is largely down to the stunning photographs of Earth he tweeted to his army of followers.
Ms Sharman, who has just started a new job as technical services manager at Kingston University, said that there is nothing quite like the view of the Blue Planet from space, which is why she is keen for Major Peake to make the most of his five-month stay on the International Space Station, currently scheduled for the end of 2015.
“I emailed him my congratulations, telling him the five months in space will go by very quickly and to enjoy it at the same time….Take the time to enjoy it for what it is,” Ms Sharman said.
It was in June 1989, while driving to her home in Slough, that she heard a radio advertisement that stirred her imagination. “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary”.
Sharman, who was then a chemist working with the Mars chocolate company, needed little encouragement and became one of the 13,000 applicants for a coveted place in both space and history.
Two years later, she found herself sitting in a Soviet Soyuz TM-12 space capsule being blasted into space from the Baikonur cosmodrone in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, watched by her parents and sister from a viewing stand a kilometre away.
She spent nearly eight days on board the Russian Mir space station carrying out experiments for the Soviet government, which had originally wanted Britain to share the cost but soon realised this was not going to be possible.
The government of Margaret Thatcher, who had ended Britain’s manned space programme in 1986, made it clear that the funding would have to be raised by private finance. The Soviet Union set up a company to find the money but only two commercial sponsors came forward out of about 500 British firms with direct connections to the space industry.
“The mission was purely commercial, but having said that the funding was not readily available so a deal was done with the Soviets that I would do their experiments in return for a seat on their flight,” Sharman said.
“So I was there on a commercial mission, I was paid to do it as a job doing experiments on someone else’s programme. I don’t classify myself as the first space tourist because I wasn’t as though I paid and had a holiday out of it – although I had a fab time,” she explained.
In contrast, Major Peake is going into space as part of the European corps of astronauts, paid for by the European Space Agency (ESA). Although Britain contributes to ESA, it does not pay anything towards its manned programme.
It is understood that Major Peake’s ticket was paid for in kind by a timely donation by the UK of £16m to ESA at a time when its funding was stretched. This means that Peake will become de facto the first British astronaut with official government backing.
Sharman, as one might expect of someone with the Right Stuff, is a keen advocate of human space travel. She points out that Britain is alone among the major industrialised nations in not having a human space programme.
“I think we should be funding ESA’a manned space flight programme. It’s valuable, it’s collaborative and we can more from it if we are part of it fully,” Sharman said.
“There is good science you can do in space. There is stuff there you cannot do on Earth and we can gain understanding from it,” she said
“However, it is also true that you could do far more science for the same amount of money on Earth. You don’t go into space just for the science. Economically it is not worth it. I think the reason we should be in space is for the exploration, it’s the human endeavour,” she explained.
“We need to be pushing our human boundaries. We were a sea-faring nation and that exploration made us the country that we have become. The fact that we’ve stopped human space exploration has become a real problem. It has stopped us from being proud of being part of this international community,” she added.
Many people may think that Britain has a manned programme because there have been a handful of astronauts over that past three decades with joint US citizenship who have flown on the Shuttle. However, they have all done it under the American flag.
“I am sure this has led the public to believe that we as a country have had quite a long interest in human space flight as a nation, and we haven’t. I think that is something that the Government has been very happy to allow us to continue to think,” Sharman said.
“I think Tim’s mission is about dipping our toes in the water, seeing what the public reaction is going to be. It’s a compromise, but we need to believe that we belong otherwise Britain is always going to feel like a backwater, a has-been that just hangs on to the edges of the excitement of the future,” she added.
“And that’s not where we should be.”
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