A STAR in the pavement in front of the town hall is a reminder of the day – 20 years ago next week – that a Sheffield woman became the first Briton in space.
Helen Sharman was an obvious candidate for a Sheffield ‘legend’ – a home town tribute amid a plethora of honours in recognition of her achievements as a pioneer and a scientist.
These days the former pupil of Grenoside Junior and Infant School and Jordanthorpe Comprehensive is back among the science community, leading a team at the National Physical Laboratory on the outskirts of London.
It’s a job very much out of the limelight compared with her position on May 18, 1991, when the then 27-year-old blasted off as a UK cosmonaut on the Soviet space mission Project Juno, spending eight days at the Mir Space Station conducting scientific experiments.
The story has often ben told how she made history as a result of hearing a radio advertisement while driving home from her work as a research technologist for Mars Confectionery.
If Helen Sharman was an unknown space candidate, her job gave the newspapers an ideal headline.
The radio ad proclaimed: ‘Astronaut wanted – no experience necessary’. The only requirements were that applicants should be British, aged 21 to 40, with a science background, the ability to learn a foreign language and a good level of fitness.
Helen beat more than 13,000 applicants to be selected as one of the final four candidates for the position of UK cosmonaut and underwent weeks of physical and psychological tests to make it to the final two.
She was then sent for 18 months of training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Moscow’s Star City, preparing to cope with weightlessness, living in a cramped environment, survival procedures and learning to pilot rocket systems. Finally she was chosen to join fellow cosmonauts Anatoly Artebartsky and Sergei Krikalyov.
Her parents and sister watched from a viewing stand in the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan as the flight took off.
The Sheffield University chemistry graduate came back to further her career as a scientist and to become one of the country’s leading ambassadors for science, giving lectures around the world and working with Sheffield and Hallam Universities to enthuse local schoolchildren.
Helen returned to Russia last month on the 50th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight. She said: “I was able to meet many old friends from my time in Star City, where I trained for 18 months leading up to my space flight.
“Life for many Russians has changed significantly in the last 20 years and so it has for many of my friends and colleagues there.
“However, the space programme continues and it was interesting to see astronauts training in very similar simulators to the ones I used, in the same buildings and sometimes even with the same trainers.”
She reflected that “after a very normal school and university life”, she had worked in the electronics and confectionery industries, “without even imagining I would ever go into space. I certainly never thought of myself as a public figure.
“I had a massive experience in Russia in many ways, culminating in a rocket launch and eight days in space.
“In many ways, that was when my life changed more than in any way before. Not that I had been in space per se, but that I became known for it. There is no training for being famous!”
Helen was awarded the OBE in 1992 and has been honoured by both Sheffield’s universities.
Such was the local pride in her achievements that she was asked to carry the flame (and, yes, there was that trip) during the opening ceremony of the World Student Games in July 1991.
She said this week: “People in Sheffield were hugely supportive of me and my space flight and I would like to thank Sheffield people for that.
“I enjoyed working with both universities in Sheffield to promote science and I was honoured to unveil a plaque in the pavement outside the town hall a few years ago.
“I look forward to the time when there will be another British astronaut who flies as part of a British space mission. I would encourage everyone to aim high and have a go at a new experience, whatever it might be.
“Doing new things is not always easy but it certainly makes life interesting.”