Britain’s first astronaut: ‘There’s more diversity in space than in science’

By Oliver Smith 7 February 2018
Helen Sharman. Image: Max Alexander/Starmus.

Helen Sharman tells The Memo we can learn a lot from the stars.

Space is coming back into fashion – especially in the wake of missions like Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy Rocket to Mars taking off last night.

But Helen Sharman was one of Britain’s earliest pioneers into the stars, her 1991 mission to Russia’s Mir space station made her the first woman to visit the station and Britain’s first astronaut – long before Tim Peake.

Sharman’s always been a fierce advocate for space, and these days she finds she’s not alone.

Peak space

“We have peaks of excitement, but at the moment our fascination with space is at another level,” Sharman tells The Memo, speaking at the launch of Europe’s Starmus festival of science and art.

“We’ve landed on a comet, sent a spacecraft right through Saturn’s rings, and had a recent astronaut from our own country.”

Indeed, it’s fair to say that Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015 did more than capture the public’s attention, it also put space back on the agenda.

In the years since Peake’s return, the Government has backed the creation of a British ‘space port’, although this project has no timeline.

“Some really exciting things are happening,” says Sharman.

Controversially for some, it’s not national space missions that are the forefront of space travel these days, but rather private enterprises, backed by entrepreneurs like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson.

But, maybe surprisingly, private space travel is something Sharman is a staunch supporter of.

The privatisation of space

“It’s making access to space better, easier, cheaper, and quicker,” says Sharman.

“That is good for scientists and it’s good for humans in general.”

She points to her own mission in 1991 – which was co-funded by both a group of British businesses, a paid lottery to select applicants for the trip, and the Soviet Union.

In recent days President Donald Trump has even called for NASA to pull its funding for the ISS, something that could happen by 2025 and something that Sharman actually supports.

“If the ISS can go commercial, then NASA and all the other countries can put that funding elsewhere,” says Sharman, reluctantly agreeing with him.

“Donald Trump has only said what many other people are saying anyway.”

The argument goes that you wouldn’t expect the taxpayer to fund an airline, so why should the free market of space be any different.

As we move ahead with private space travel, however, there’s one principle that Sharman believes should be upheld and promoted – diversity among astronauts.

The International Space Station could be privatised by 2025.

Diversity in the stars

“We’re doing well – there’s a bigger percentage of astronauts who are women, compared to science graduates from university,” Sharman says.

“But at some point, in the hopefully not too distant future, we’ll have 50% of graduates in science and in art, who are men and women.”

Today she accepts we still have a long way to go – on earth at least – to inspire more girls in school to choose science, study it at university, and maybe follow Sharman’s footsteps into the stars.

“I’ve always just done what I’ve done, not because I’m a woman, just because I want to do it and I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Her message for the next generation of young girls, who are looking up to the stars?

“Just go for it. Don’t think about being a girl, just think about what you want to do. Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do anything, because you can.”