An interview with Britain’s first astronaut Helen Sharman

In 1991, Helen Sharman became the first Briton to fly in space. BBC Sky at Night Magazine interviewed her to ask how the last 25 years have changed for Britain in space

Britain's first astronaut Helen Sharman. Image Credit: Imperial College London

On 18 May 1991 Helen Sharman became the first British citizen in space when she spent six days on board Soviet space station Mir. We caught up with Sharman as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her launch to ask her how Britain’s attitude to space has changed in the decades after her flight.

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How did you come to be the first Briton in space?

I heard an advert on the radio and applied because I thought it would be fun, to be quite honest.

The fact that the successful candidate would be the first Briton to go into space was the reason the flight was happening at all, but it wasn’t the reason I applied.

This was in the pre UK Space Agency days, so there was no government involvement in human space flight at that time.

Things are different now as current UK astronaut Tim Peake was funded by the UK government. What do you think brought about the change?

I think the government has realised that there is a public will to be one of the spacefaring nations and if we don’t start to fund human spaceflight then Britain will be out of it for too long.

The public don’t want to be left behind, they want to experience the excitement of having one of our own up there.

There’s a huge benefit in terms of the business side of things, from the space market.

We can only bury our head in the sand so long. We need to get out there and start making money out of it or someone else will.

Helen Sharman's spacesuit on display at the National Space Centre in Leicestershire. Credit: Alan Saunders (Kaptain Kobold) from Staines, UK - Flickr
Helen Sharman’s spacesuit on display at the National Space Centre in Leicestershire. Credit: Alan Saunders (Kaptain Kobold) from Staines, UK – Flickr

Do you think we’re doing enough to support British astronauts?

I think we’re getting there. For now I think the UK Space Agency are doing well supporting Tim Peake and so on.

What they need to do now is make it clear that there will be continued funding for spaceflight activities.

For instance all the scientists who are working on human spaceflight projects at the moment will soon reach the end of their funding.

A lot of businesses want to invest in the long-term elements of human spaceflight, but they need to know there is going to be continued government support.

I think the government decided to dip their toe in the water with Tim Peake and see what public opinion is.

Hopefully there will be another flight for Tim or another Briton in the not too distant future.

We have to wait our turn, but the important thing is that we are now part of the team.

How does the public’s reaction to Tim differ from when you flew?

There was a blip in interest when I flew, but the government support wasn’t there.

Britain had done something interesting, but there was no funding for any of the UK projects afterwards.

I think times have changed.

I hope we’re in it for good now.

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I don’t think Tim is a one-off and the public recognise that. It’s time to start applying pressure to the government to continue this funding.