Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut in May 1991 when she launched on a Soyuz spacecraft to spend eight days orbiting the Earth, most of that time on the Mir Space Station. 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. More recently, she has worked as a manager at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington and at Kingston University London. Currently, Helen is the UK Outreach Ambassador for Imperial College London.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
I am constantly amazed by how much media space is taken up by celebrity fame-seeking antics. Often we do not hear about people who genuinely give their time for good causes with no expectation of anything in return. Consequently, I am amazed by what people actually do to help others and it resets my faith in human nature, making me feel glad to be part of society. Seeing a cyclist stop to help a young child with cycle tyre puncture, watching as a train passenger walked in the opposite direction to his destination to help a mother with a child in a push chair up a staircase and hearing about a stranger buying a long distance fare for an elderly passenger who could not afford it are all recent examples.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
For me, wonder is when we are thoughtful in a surprised kind of way. Awe is realising that something or its impact is (or can be) huge. Curiosity is wanting to find out more. I think they can be inter-related or not, in any order, depending on what an individual does with any particular idea, but it is most exciting when curiosity spawns wonder, which itself spawns awe, which leads to further curiosity…
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
We like to make sense of the world around us so if something suddenly appears unexplained, it can provoke us into thought. But we need time to allow ourselves to think and to make connections with what we have learnt in life so far, before exploring the idea with others.
As an astronaut your curiosity took you into Earth orbit. What compelled you to work so hard and take such huge risks?
When I applied for the job, I was thinking about the training: to combine learning a foreign language, studying space science and technology and physical training in one job was a dream come true. However, the prospect of feeling weightless and doing experiments impossible on Earth also had a certain allure!
How did your experience, and especially looking out into space from the windows of Mir, shape your view of human existence?
Looking out of the window, I did not once think of the physical stuff that I own (or would like to own). Once we have the basics to support life, material objects have a very low priority compared to human relationships and the good use we can make of our lives. On the other hand, the billions of stars stretching into the vastness of space does rather put little old Earth and the human race into perspective: one large meteor impact or a close brush with a black hole and we’d be a gonner!
What was it like adjusting to life back on Earth? Did the experience of space travel re-calibrate your sense of wonder? Did the everyday seem more mundane or magical post splash down?
Immediately after touch down, every part of me felt heavy. I noticed the weight of my little finger and I moved my check list book up and down, marvelling at how its weight felt. But the human body adapts very quickly and after a few steps on the ground, it felt normal to have weight again. Getting used to the notoriety of being an astronaut took longer but I am fortunate to have other astronauts to talk to and some good friends to keep me grounded. Now, when I look at the Moon, I really appreciate what the Apollo programme achieved and my sense of wonder of space travel in general is all the more for having had a small taste of it myself. And when I look up at the stars, I remember how many more I could see from space. Inside the space station, I forgot what weather feels like and now I love to feel the wind in my hair and the rain on my face. I don’t think space travel has re-calibrated my sense of wonder but I am more appreciative of life.
Later this year the world will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing. What is the value of space exploration today?
Space exploration is part of a basic need to push forward our boundaries. It explains our existence, helps us to understand changes and it will be our future. Space enables us to take care of our planet better and research done in space improves lives on Earth. In order to explore space, we develop science and technology that translates into many aspects of life on Earth. Space inspires young people to study STEM subjects and space travel inspires curiosity, wonder and awe in us all.
A large and part of your work has been speaking to school students. Why is this so valuable to you? If you could travel back in time to speak to a teenage Helen Sharman, what advice would you give her for life?
I always felt that my spaceflight was as much Britain’s first human spaceflight as it was mine so I owed it to the country to tell people about it. Being able to inspire school students to take an interest in STEM subjects through space has been particularly fulfilling because I know that the more people who include science as part of their daily life, the more we question news of developments and the better society debates scientific issues. Oh, and it’s good for GDP as well! I would tell teenage Helen Sharman to have more confidence, to believe in herself and to ‘have a go’.
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