Who was the first British woman to fly in space?


Helen Sharman is a scientist who became the first British woman astronaut when she visited the Mir space station in 1991.

Mir was a space station operated by the Soviet Union (subsequently Russia) between 1986 and 2001. At the time, it was the largest artificial satellite in orbit.

Mir was used as a microgravity research laboratory in which space crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and spacecraft systems. The aim was to develop the technologies required for permanent occupation of space.

Helen was almost 28 years old when she became an astronaut. She was born in Sheffield and attended local schools before studying chemistry at the University of Sheffield. Her career started in industry after graduating. First she worked in research and development at GEC in Hammersmith, London and later for Mars Confectionery in Slough.

Before she became an astronaut, Helen underwent a rigorous selection process which included psychological and medical assessments, her capability to learn Russian, whether she would be able to cope with motion sickness and if she had the technical and practical skills that would be needed on such a challenging mission.

Once selected into the cosmonaut team, Helen had eighteen months of intensive training in Moscow. To prepare for the launch she had to experience feeling weightless, understand spacecraft operations, practice emergency procedures before taking her place as one of the crew.

After her return from space, Helen spent many years communicating science and its benefits by speaking, presenting on radio and television and by organising science events for the public.

She has worked as a manager at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, at Kingston University London and at Imperial College London. Currently, Helen is UK Outreach Ambassador for Imperial College London.

Photo credit: Alan Saunders (Kaptain Kobold) from Staines, UK, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons