Sheffield astronaut Helen Sharman back in home city

Helen Sharman. Picture by Andrew Roe
Helen Sharman. Picture by Andrew Roe

Sheffield's Helen Sharman - the first Briton to go to space - made a rare visit back to her home city today to collect an honorary degree and officially open an £80 million university building.

Dr Sharman OBE toured the Diamond, Sheffield University's engineering centre off Broad Lane, which caters for 5,000 students, and later donned a mortar board and gown to be recognised for her achievements at a graduation ceremony.

The degree adds to the former astronaut's original qualification - in chemistry - gained in 1984 at the same institution.

Helen, from Grenoside, was the first woman to visit the Mir space station in 1991 aged 27, having won a competition that attracted 13,000 applicants.

After being shown around the Diamond she remarked on the 'interdisciplinary nature' of the engineering that is encouraged there.

"Life doesn’t work in silos," she said.

“The other thing is the openness of the labs for practical use – you get such a good feeling about how our machines behave, if you actually make things yourself. And to be able to make changes, think on the spot and have a go - it’s a hothouse for innovation."

Prof Sir Keith Burnett, the university's president and vice-chancellor, said: “Helen is someone who has experienced what very few can match, she has looked back at our planet from space and appreciated the power and wonder of science, engineering and human endeavour.

"Helen began her journey in Sheffield and even the sky was not the limit. I can think of no better person to formally open the Diamond building.”

King Edward VII, the Queen Mother and the poet T.S. Eliot are among the prominent figures to have opened other Sheffield University buildings.

See The Star on Tuesday for a full interview with Helen Sharman