Rocket Science! UK & Russia in orbit
|Helen Sharman & Anatoly Artsebarsky
This event was held as part of the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition
, on Sunday 8th July. Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut on 18 May 1991, when the Soyuz TM-12 mission, with Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalev, flew to the Mir Space Station. I had been lucky enough to meet Sergei Krikalev at the ISS Symposium in Berlin in May earlier this year, so it was a lovely opportunity to meet his crew mates. Dr Helen Sharman OBE talked first, after introductions from the
British ambassador in Moscow and the Royal Society.
“We don’t often get the chance to meet any more. 21 years ago
we did everything, and I mean everything, in the same room. This is the first
time we’ve met in London and our first presentation that we’ve done together.
As far as I’m concerned, science is all around us all the
time. You can’t do anything without it, most of the time you don’t think about
it. But when you’re in space you have to know about it in order just to stay
Star city is a few km north east of Moscow, at the time it
was a military base for all cosmonauts. 2,500 people lived in star city. I arrived
there as a scientist, I was a chemist.
|Parabolic flight experience
We trained in a plane that would fly parabolas, which simulated
23 seconds of weightlessness for each of 10 loops. We had sea training, a mockup of the re-entry
spacecraft, how to come back and survive in this thing. We wanted to land on
dry land, Kazakhstan, nice and flat, easy to land on. You might think landing
on water would be easier, diving into it, but if you just want to land, then water
doesn’t absorb much of the energy of the impact. On land, you can use
retro-rockets to give you a bit of a boost just before you make that final
touchdown, and you’ve got the land itself, which has air pockets, which can
absorb some of that energy. So a landing on land is softer than that on water.
Though, as there is more sea than land, we had to have training just in case.
|Helen Sharman showing a photo of the UK she took from Mir
The previous crew had been on Mir for six months, they were
looking forward to seeing other people and we were looking forward to seeing
The crew was chosen, the backup crew were chosen, and then
the crew trains together. You get to know each other very well, get to know each
other’s families, likes, dislikes, so when you come to fly there are no secrets
left by the time you are having to share absolutely everything.
18 months training, for 8 days in space, a lot of training,
for 8 days. It wasn’t glamorous, but I hope you’ll agree, I think it was the
most fun job in the world. The max forces on lift off were 3.5g, but as you are
lying on your back, they go through your chest to back, rather than head to
toe, so there is not a risk of blood being forced out of your head and
fainting. Landing involves 4.5g, even
more force. All I did for 8 days was to fall around the Earth. At this time the
Mir space station was made up of 3 modules.
|Helen Sharman and Anatoly Artsebarsky
It takes 5 seconds to travel west to east across London, 20
minutes to cross Africa, but 40 minutes to cross the Pacific Ocean, it makes
you realise how little of the world you know.
You have to eat lots of fibre, daily dried fruit, prunes etc
are required, to ensure you have bowel movements. Building a toilet in space is
one of the most ingenious things ever invented. It has an air flush, which gets
rid of everything and any odours. The Russians recycle everything, so turn it
back to pure water, which could be drunk. However, the psychologists suggested it
would be better to use it for something else, so they electrolyse the water to
produce oxygen and hydrogen, in order to recycle oxygen into the station for us
to breathe. I’m waiting for them to recycle carbon dioxide with the recycled
hydrogen to make recycled carbohydrates, the first recycled cookie in space
The problem with no convection means that if you are
sleeping, the carbon dioxide that you breathe out will just hang and form a
cloud around you, and eventually you would die from breathing your own carbon dioxide.
Therefore fans work all the time on the space stations, to move the air around.
When de-orbiting, as you enter the atmosphere you can see a
plasma ionising around you, which turns from orange to yellow and white. From
the window you could see the spacecraft melting.
To quote Arthur C Clarke: ‘An organism ceases to exist when
it stops pushing its boundaries’, we have great opportunity to learn about
ourselves in space. Scientific discoveries will enhance lives. There are
arguments you can do more science for the same money on Earth, but there is
some science that can only be done in space.”
|Anatoly Artsebarsky with his translator
Anatoly Artsebarsky appeared genuinely happy to be here, after not
having seen Helen in 20 years.
“This is a good omen now that the UK Space agency exists,
and started with the UK-Russian space year (2011). I hope we will co-operate
permanently. It has always been a regret that UK was just doing unmanned space
flight, I hoped that Helen’s flight would be the start of more. All astronauts
of 51 years of spaceflight history have spent 100 manned years in space,
whereas Helen, the only British astronaut, spent 8 days. Space can be explored
in collaboration with others, I am hopeful the international effort will be
joined by the UK. I was grateful to Gorbachev for his decision for Helen to
fly, and his decision for things to continue.”
In response to a question about whether government agencies
were still needed for space exploration, given the recent SpaceX flight,
Anatoly said “I think it’s best to pool resources, not everything is best
privately, only the best can achieve the most.”
Answering what did he miss, when being in space, he
responded “We had so much work to do we cut sleep, we didn’t have time to miss
much on Earth, though when seeing storms over Africa we did miss the smell of
earth, the sound of rain, the simple things. We only looked through the windows
when it was required for work. When it was night time in the USA we were supposed
to sleep, but we also had to observe American military secrets!”
|Anatoly Artsebarsky and myself