Written by Suze Kundu

In The News

Having a chops with… Dr Helen Sharman

Our resident scientist Suze Kundu was over the moon to spend time with the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman. They chat Tim Peake’s landmark flight, making ice-cream, oh, and being an astronaut.

Helen Sharman (left) and Suze Kundu.

Helen Sharman (left) and Suze Kundu.

Suze Kundu: For those that don’t know your story – and I don’t know if that’s possible – where would people know you from?

Helen Sharman: Younger people have probably learned about me in school as I am in the English syllabus in junior school. A comprehension passage, I believe. I hated comprehension, so I feel sorry for the poor people that have to do it! Slightly older students may have done me in science, and then there are the people that would remember me from my space flight, but that’s 24 years ago now, so the people in the middle may not know me at all.

SK: How would you sum up Helen Sharman?

HS: I started off by doing a degree in chemistry. I’ve always loved science, but I always quite loved everything to be honest. I also particularly enjoyed languages and struggled to decide what to do. In the end, I decided science was better because I could more easily learn a language in the future than I could learn science. I liked biology, physics, maybe medicine, maybe engineering – I wasn’t really sure, so kept my options open and chose chemistry, as it was kind of in the middle, and I enjoyed it.

At the end of my degree I wanted to go out into industry and loved the idea of working in an environment that produces stuff. I wasn’t interested in the academic route at all, so I went and got a job for GEC working in electronics, making display screens, and working on the materials side of that.

I was the only chemist in a whole department of physicists and engineers, so suddenly I was a specialist. At university you’re one of many undergraduates, so suddenly I was dumped in the deep end, but loved it. After three years, I needed to move on, and got a job as a Mars Confectionary research technologist, working on ice cream – it can’t get much better than that!

SK: Many prolific women of the past have worked on ice cream…

HS: Yes, you’re right! It was great though – you had to use your science common sense in a production environment. You might want to work out whether you can use a particular crystal structure in your ingredients. In order to do that you might need to incorporate 20 tonnes of it into a manufacturing environment. So then you’re having to bring in 20 tonnes of stuff – how are you going to bring that huge supply into the factory? It’s the logistics too, so you get to do everything.

“As somebody who has worked in chemistry and industry, I didn’t apply to go into space because I wanted fame or fortune, I applied because I thought it would be fun to do experiments in space and to train with the Russians.”

I worked in the team that developed the Mars ice cream. This was way back when chocolate bar ice creams didn’t exist – we had choc ices and Mars bars but not together. Again I loved it, and again the same kind of things applied: materials, chemistry, and the politics and legislation that goes with it. Two years into the job, driving home from work I heard an advert on the car radio saying, “astronaut wanted, no experience necessary”. I applied. With a few other people, of course.

SK: Do you remember how many people applied for the job?

HS: Thirteen thousand! When I heard the advert I thought there was no chance. There was a selection process, including psychological tests, and they put us in centrifuges and spinning chairs to look at how motion sick we were going to be, and eventually they chose two of us to go to Russia to do the training.

Sharman, waiting for the sky.

There’s a Sharman, waiting for the sky.

SK: How long did it all take from start to finish?

HS: It was about five and a bit months all together. Timothy Mace and I did the training together.

SK: You were chosen on a live broadcast, right?

HS: Yes, it was horrible! Absolutely horrible. As somebody who has worked in chemistry and industry, I didn’t apply to go into space because I wanted fame or fortune, I applied because I thought it would be fun to do experiments in space and to train with the Russians. The fact that there was a bit of publicity involved was the real downside to me. But it was a downside worth taking – including having to be selected live on this awful, awful show.

None of the individuals on the show were to blame – they did as professional a job as possible in this situation, but because it was a commercial mission, the PR company was trying to razzmatazz it up for the people in the country who might be able to afford to fund it.

It was not funded by the UK government; the idea was that a company was set up and they would raise sponsorship and get donations from industry for me and Tim to do the training, and for us to go into space and carry out experiments. So a very good idea in principle, except it was 30 or 40 years too far in advance of the country – it wasn’t ready for commercial funding yet, so they struggled to get it in the end.

It was live. There was music, displays, clips from our selection process, and interviews with different people – the four of us were cringing in our seats. Had it been done properly, they might have got more interest from the serious scientific investors, but unfortunately the company leading the marketing was just there to put the first Briton in space. For them, the experiments were a nonentity.

Later on when it became known that the funding had not been as much as they needed, and there were negotiations with the Russians, Tim and I were asked to go into space without doing any experiments, because that would actually reduce the amount of funding needed significantly.

“I have always said that astronauts are really just space technicians. That’s why I’m very excited about Tim Peake’s spaceflight, because we have loads of British science going on up there, and also it puts out the message to more British science about what can be done in the future if the government continues to fund human space flight.”

SK: Presumably that defeated the purpose of wanting to go into space for you. What did you say?

HS: Yes, it defeated the purpose for me and Tim, although it didn’t defeat the purpose of the mission, which was just to put the first Briton in space. Of course, Tim and I took about half a second to think about it and turned around straight away and said no, there’s no point. We’re here to train to do experiments in space. We will not go. We will refuse to go into space if there are no experiments.

SK: Were you allowed to choose which experiments you carried out in space?

HS: No, there were lots of negotiations going on with the Russian programmes to fund my seat. I took part in the Russian space experimental programme, so I did Russian experiments. That was interesting because the Russians wanted to show the rest of the world their range of science. I loved chemistry, but also loved other things too, so it was great to grow protein crystals, but I also looked at potato roots and wheat seedlings to see how they grew.

They wanted ultraviolet images of Earth. We looked at putting ceramic films on the outside of the space craft, so we got to use the airlock a little bit, which was great! As there is a lot of metal in the airlock itself, and in the frame of the samples we were using, whenever you opened the airlock, you could smell bare metal as the oxide layer had been stripped off into space. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, but it was interesting because it was different. It was actually one of my favourite experiments because I got to operate this airlock system.

The sad part is that all the data we collected from our experiments went back to Russian scientists. They are the scientists in these experiments. I have always said that astronauts are really just space technicians. That’s why I’m very excited about Tim Peake’s spaceflight, because we have loads of British science going on up there, and also it puts out the message to more British science about what can be done in the future if the government continues to fund human space flight. I’m convinced the public is going to be right behind it, not just for the science but for the national pride. It’s us taking part in international development, investing in British science and engineering.

Sharman's spacesuit on display. Photo by Alan Saunders, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sharman’s spacesuit on display. Photo by Alan Saunders, via Wikimedia Commons.

SK: The science communication and public engagement around Tim’s space flight is doing good things for boosting interest in science and engineering. Do you think this public engagement is important?

HS: For a long time – certainly when I was at university – scientists thought that if you were doing the communication, that meant that you couldn’t do the science, whereas we now know that if you can’t communicate the impact that your science has, then you’re not going to be able to get the science grants to do your work anyway.

I am also a very strong believer that science should be part of public debate. We need to inform people so that we can vote for the right things. We must not just rely on politicians, who often are not themselves scientifically educated, who are often taking advice from a very small sector of society on what they should be doing. If the British public can engage with that more as part of our democracy, it is really important.

On lots of different levels, we must communicate what we are doing as scientists. I think we are managing it much better now – I mean, Suze, you’re one of many really good examples of people who are not only communicating science on its own, but people that are continuing to work as researchers AND communicating science. There are also people like Dallas (Campbell) who isn’t a scientist, but is interested in it and communicates it very well.

“I am a very strong believer that science should be part of public debate. We need to inform people so that we can vote for the right things.”

I think it is much better recognised now that it is not something to be dismissed. Thanks to the REF (the Research Excellence Framework), universities have suddenly had to wake up to the fact that the quality of their blue skies research is only good to a point. The impact of that research is now directly affecting the status that universities have. And of course status to academics is so important! So it’s really great that we have come around full circle in the last 20 or so years.

Twenty-four years ago when I came back from my space flight, one of the things I wanted to do was communicate science, because people told me that they wanted to find out more about science, but they didn’t know how. There is no access. Once you are outside of full time education, where do you find out about these things? So I started talking about my space flight, but gradually started moving into other things. I would work with other academics and we would give lectures on glass, or gases.

I made a short series with BBC Radio 2 called Under The Kitchen Sink, which was about chemicals in the home. I did a load of stuff for BBC Schools – 30 or so programmes that keep getting repeated all around the world. Science communication is not taught as part of a degree in science, really, and that is a real shame.

Read the rest of Suze’s interview with Helen next week.

@HelenSharmanUK
@FunSizeSuze

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Written by Suze Kundu

Suze is a nanochemist, both literally and professionally, and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials. Suze is also a science presenter, and loves dancing, live gigs, Muse and shoes. @FunSizeSuze