Helen Sharman OBE: From Grenoside to the Stars

In May of 1991, if you were to survey the milky black void of space, dipping and diving around ice giants, and asteroid belts, eventually you would stumble across the Mir Space Station. An ugly thing. A sideways-long tin pot protruding with bits and bobs and scientific instruments, floating above our humble, blue marble of planet. And in that tin pot, twiddling with knobs and dials, performing rigorous tests, you would find Helen Sharman, the lass from Grenoside.

Born and raised in Grenoside, Sheffield, Sharman went to Meadowhead school (then Jordanthorpe Comprehensive), before pursuing a BSc in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, and finally a PhD from Birbeck, University of London. Armed with these qualifications, Sharman would become a chemist for Mars Confectionery, working with the flavourant properties of chocolate (leading the media to eventually dub her the ‘Girl from Mars’).

Sharman’s big break came after she answered a radio advertisement calling for applicants to be Britain’s first space explorer. When asked why she was chosen, from a pool of over 13,000 applicants, Sharman shrugged: “I was physically fit, good in a team and not too excitable, which was important. You can’t have people losing it in space. I think it was just my normality” (Guardian 2016).

With that, Sharman was whisked off to Star City, Russia, where she spent 18 months learning fluent Russian, studying mathematics and astrology, and learning to deal with the physical stress of space travel.

On May 18th, 1991, Sharman and fellow cosmonauts Anatoly Artebartsky and Sergei Krikalyov finally departed for the Mir Space Station. The station was notoriously shoddy, as space-faring technology goes. Sharman complained of regular power failures, which would plunge the crew into total darkness (indeed, just ten years later, in 2001, the station was retired for good). While Sharman was there, she spent her days performing medical and agricultural tests, as well as bantering and fostering camaraderie with her Soviet colleagues, before returning to earth on May 26th.

Dr. Helen Sharman has spent the years since communicating science to the general public, and especially trying to inspire generations of schoolchildren to follow in her footsteps. She has been rewarded for her achievements with an OBE, as well a star on the Sheffield Walk of Fame.

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