Reviewer: Tim Harding
“Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary”. This was the strapline from a commercial that 26-year-old Dr Helen Sharman heard in 1989. Sharman was, at the time, working as a chemist for the confectioners Mars, working on a team developing a Mars Bar flavoured ice cream! She says she had no big dreams of going into space as a child, but she heard the advert and knew that, while they would never choose anyone like her, if she didn’t apply then she would always wonder what might have been.
This is the jumping off point for Dr Sharman’s hour-long talk about her experiences of training for Project Juno and ultimately going into space. She proves to be a wonderfully engaging speaker, talking easily to the audience in the large expanse of Birmingham Town Hall for an hour with no notes and only a slightly temperamental PowerPoint remote control for support. She describes her shock and wonder at being selected from around 13,000 applicants, her dedicated training at the Russian Star City base (including her and colleague Tim Mace having an interpreter who only spoke Russian and French, no English!), and her complete lack of nerves on actually launching in the Soyuz TM-12 spacecraft alongside her two Russian colleagues Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalov.
She goes on to describe some of her experiments, in particular, trying to grow potato roots, which, she comments, was many years before Matt Damon’s character succeeded in The Martian.
After a short interval, Dr Sharman proves completely at ease fielding questions from the floor, several from children in the very diverse audience. One of the highlights of this evening came when one gentleman took the microphone and stated, “I was one of the 13,000…”. This starts a brief banter between floor and stage about how Dr Sharman had stolen his opportunity and what he could have done better to improve his chances.
It is just one of the many moments in the evening that demonstrates how completely relaxed and normal Helen Sharman is. A natural communicator, she even tries her best to deflect one audience member’s comment about how she could be used more publicly to encourage young women into science and engineering. Dr Sharman’s response is simply that she was doing her job. The questioner in the audience could have been speaking for all of us; can we please have more advocacy from this charming, engaging scientist. The world needs more Dr Helen Sharmans.
Reviewed on 22 June 2019 | Image: Contributed