Space suit used by Britain’s first astronaut Helen Sharman

Sheffield-born Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut and the first woman to visit the Soviet Mir space station in May 1991. The space suit she used for the mission has gone on display at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle as part of the Great Exhibition of the North.

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Project Juno was a private initiative to send a Briton into space by purchasing a seat on a Soyuz mission to Mir. Helen Sharman, at the time employed by Mars as a chemist, was selected from nearly 13,000 who responded to an advertisement reading “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary” which appeared in the British press in 1989 (other hopefuls included science fiction author Stephen Baxter).

Sharman and her backup Tim Mace underwent training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, Moscow (“Star City”), but the Juno consortium failed to raise the necessary funds for the mission and it faced cancellation. It eventually went ahead thanks to the personal intervention of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. However, the ambitious microgravity experiments planned for the mission had to be substituted for simpler tasks that could be performed with existing equipment on the space station.

Sharman was launched aboard Soyuz TM-12 on 18 May 1991, accompanying mission commander Anatoly Artsebarsky and engineer Sergei Krikalyov. She performed medical and agricultural tests, photographed the British Isles, and participated in a licensed amateur radio hookup with British schoolchildren. She returned aboard Soyuz TM-11 on 26 May 1991. Aged 27 years and 11 months at the time of her flight, she remains one of the youngest people ever to travel in space. The mission was one of the last to take place before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Both Helen Sharman and Tim Mace were candidates in the 1992 and 1998 European Space Agency selection rounds for its astronaut corps, but surprisingly neither were chosen.

Helen Sharman was appointed an OBE in the 1992 Birthday Honours. She continued her scientific work and in 2015 she was appointed Operations Manager for the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College, London.

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Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author

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