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Lunch With
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Lunch with Helen Sharman at Ognisko, London

29 December 2016

Twenty-five years ago Dr Helen Sharman made history when she became the first Briton in space. We spoke to the scientist over lunch at Ognisko in London.

Ognisko is located on the ground floor of Ognisko Polskie (Polish Hearth Club), a private members’ club on Exhibition Road in London’s Kensington neighbourhood, founded in 1940 by Polish nationals seeking refuge in Britain during the Second World War. Entering through heavy curtains, I spot a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II exiting through the very same curtains after a dinner to celebrate the Duke of Kent’s 80th birthday in 2015. In a less prominent position, on the way to the gent’s, is a photograph of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. It’s signed: “To the Polish Club with best wishes Buzz Aldrin.” Ognisko Polskie has a grandeur befitting the status of my dining companion, Dr Helen Sharman, the scientist who became the first Briton in space when she visited the Mir space station on the joint Soviet Union-British Project Juno mission in 1991.

Sharman is now a trim 53-year-old, her dark brown hair shorter and sharper, her features more angular, but her brown eyes still possessing the same clarity on display in the photographs, of the then 27-year-old, taken before her space flight 25 years earlier. Entirely unpretentious, Sharman probably chose the restaurant because it is directly opposite Imperial College London, where she has worked as operations manager for the Department Of Chemistry since 2015, rather than its prestigious clientele.

Born in Grenoside, a suburb of the city of Sheffield, North Yorkshire, Sharman enjoyed what she describes as “a very normal upbringing” with her mother, a nurse until she gave up work when she had children; her father, a physicist; and her sister (a brother came a long “much later”). She went to the local comprehensive school and enjoyed messing about in the garden with her friends. “It was a fairly non-special existence, really,” says Sharman.

But she loved science. “I got the science from my dad,” she says. “It became a part of normal conversation. I never thought of science as something that you might separate from the rest of life. For me it was just life. My dad would explain stuff he was doing around the house, DIY, as a lot of dads do, but being a physicist, he would explain the science. He would explain why a plug and a socket are wired the way they are, and that was just a normal part of existence. I never thought of it being different from anybody else’s upbringing.”

When the time arrived to start mapping out her future career, Sharman says she had no idea what she wanted to do, but she inevitably chose science, enrolling on a chemistry degree course at the University Of Sheffield. “I couldn’t do physics because my dad had done physics,” she explains.

Sharman says she had never considered working in the space industry. “There wasn’t much of a space industry in the UK. It wasn’t even a topic of conversation at school. Nobody was going to be an astronaut. Americans and Russians were astronauts, but not British people.”

After completing her undergraduate degree, Sharman moved to London to work at the General Electric Company (GEC), and started studying for her PhD at Birbeck, University Of London, before working in research and development at Mars Incorporated.

The waitress arrives to take our order, and I mainly defer to Sharman who, having lived in Russia, is familiar with many of the ingredients and techniques – cabbage, cucumbers, pickling and smoking – used in Polish cuisine. We order kopytka dumplings and smoked eel to start, followed by chargrilled poussin and boiled salt beef with buckwheat groats and surowka on the side for our main course – all to share.

Driving home from Mars Incorporated one evening in 1989, Sharman heard a radio advertisement calling for physically fit Brits between 25 and 40 with a technical degree and proficiency in languages to apply to become astronauts. No experience necessary.

“I applied for the training as much as anything,” says Sharman. “I struggled at school to narrow down what I was studying, because I enjoyed quite a few things… I didn’t need any persuasion. I knew as soon as I heard that [ad] that’s what I wanted to do.”

The dumplings and the eel arrive. The deep-fried potato dumplings are light and crisp and smothered in a zingy red pepper dressing – delectable. But after devouring the meaty fingers of rich, oily eel, delicately smoked, sitting on top of a fresh Russian salad, drizzled with a peppery mustard and horseradish dressing, and accompanied by two triangles of crisp rye bread, I was just about ready to book a plane ticket to Warsaw. Sharman seems to be enjoying the food too, as much for the memories of her time in Russia it evokes as its quality.

The fearless youngster was up against almost 13,000 other applicants. Nevertheless, after a “filtering out process”, 40 or so were chosen for medical and psychological testing, before 22 were invited for space flight testing at the Empire Test Pilots School in Farnborough. Sharman was one of them. “Every time I went forward to the next part of the selection process I didn’t think I was going to go any further, so I was just going to enjoy each part of it.”

Four applicants were eventually sent to Star City in Moscow, home of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, a training facility for Russian astronauts since the 1960s, where they underwent more in-depth psychological tests. “They were looking for people who were fairly even-tempered,” explains Sharman.

“They didn’t want people who would get really excited or really depressed, whose mood would change significantly in certain situations.” Finally, two candidates remained: Sharman and Timothy Mace, a 33-year-old major in the Army Air Corps. The two would undergo 18 months of training in Russia before one was chosen to be part of the crew on the Soyuz TM-12 spacecraft headed for the Mir space station; the other would be back-up.

“When there were two of us, I knew that I was going to go to Moscow, to Star City, and that I was going to take part in the training, and I was delighted with that,” says Sharman. “Throughout most of the training I assumed that the person with whom I was training would fly instead of me, because in British society if you were a bit older and male and you flew helicopters for the army – it just seemed the natural way, even though he was no more qualified for space flight than I was.”

After training they were flown back to London where one of them would finally be informed that they were going to space. Sharman prepared herself for disappointment. When she was told, in her hotel room, that she was going, she had only minutes to process the news before she had to attend a reception with, among many others, Mace, who had been told that he would be back-up. During training they’d worked together; Mace helping Sharman with the theory of flight and Sharman helping Mace with the science. Now, while she was elated, he would be downhearted. “He must have expected to have been chosen, so it was probably harder for him [than it would have been for me],” she says.

On May 18, 1991, Sharman boarded the spacecraft with fellow cosmonauts Anatoly Artebartsky and Sergei Krikalyov at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, then part of the Soviet Union. Her parents and her sister looked on from a viewing platform a few hundred metres away from the rocket, her mother’s eyes fixed on a small television monitor showing an image being captured by a camera inside the spacecraft – an image of her daughter. Eventually the image “fizzled and went black”. “At that point my mum stood up suddenly and threw her arms around the nearest person she could find, who happened to be a Russian general with all these medals on his chest,” says Sharman, smiling. “He was saying, ‘There, there, I have a daughter, too’. My mum hadn’t travelled very much and was very heartened by the friendliness and normality of people from a country she was probably quite scared of when she was younger, with the Cold War and everything.”

It was only once the spacecraft had left the Earth’s atmosphere, and the payload fairing, which had obscured the windows during the launch, had been jettisoned, allowing the light to stream in through the windows, that Sharman herself began to take it all in. “That was the first time we could get a glimpse of the earth,” she says. “That’s when you really know you’re up there.”

Our main course arrives. Slivers of soft salty beef balanced by the earthiness of a beetroot terrine and given a mustard kick by a horseradish sauce, and a deliciously garlicky poussin chargrilled to perfection. The sides of roast buckwheat groats and crunchy surowka salad ensure that both of us would have trouble squeezing into a space suit for a good few hours.

The highlight of Sharman’s eight days on the Mir space station was speaking to the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who radioed up from mission control. “It was a lovely thing,” she says. “He didn’t call up to every crew. I think it was [because of] the special relationship he wanted to build with Britain.”

Sharman first encountered life in the public eye before she went to space, and she didn’t like the “false, giggly excitement” that was “peddled” by the agency hired to “drum up excitement” about the mission and turn her and Mace into minor celebrities, or the fact that the newspaper columnists who lined up to interview her were only interested in speaking about her clothes. Sharman refused to discuss the topic.

Despite the casual sexism she has encountered, Sharman has never made a big deal of being a woman. “It never mattered to me what gender I am,” she says. “I’ve just got on with it.”

Following her return to Earth, Sharman embarked on a tour of British schools – organised with the help of the then Prime Minister, John Major – during which she talked to schoolchildren about her time in space and shared her love of science. The tour turned into almost a decade of public speaking, in schools, in universities and on the radio and television. She wrote two books: an autobiography, Seize The Moment (1993), and a children’s book, The Space Place (1997), but she couldn’t remain in the limelight forever. “I just needed to move on,” she says, sipping her mint tea, which arrived along with an espresso for me. “I needed to do something different. I also wanted to live a quiet and private life.”

Sharman went so quiet that when the UK Space Agency announced that Tim Peake would travel to the International Space Station on Soyuz TMA-19M in 2015 it decided to write her out of history, declaring Peake the first British astronaut. When I mention this, Sharman isn’t angry, she has every right to be, she’s just surprised. “I don’t know if they thought people would just totally forget about my mission or what,” she says. Thankfully, the UK Space Agency issued another press release correcting the error, meaning Dr Helen Sharman’s place in the history books is secure.

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