Few British space enthusiasts can possibly forget the famous plethora of posters, newspaper advertisements, and radio and television announcements which materialised nationwide throughout the summer of 1989. Astronaut Wanted, they crowed, No Experience Necessary. It was typically indicative of the understated humour of an island kingdom whose imperial history, wealth, and technological prowess in the 19th and 20th centuries had given way to a surprising dearth of activity in the human space flight sphere. Although the United Kingdom had become the sixth nation to launch a homegrown satellite into the heavens—tiny “Prospero,” atop a Black Arrow rocket from Woomera, South Australia, in October 1971—its aspirations in space exploration almost exclusively focused upon unmanned research, with particular emphasis upon the Earth sciences. During the course of the 1980s, despite the formation of the British National Space Centre (BNSC), the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher virtually gutted any chance of a human space programme.
Nonetheless, efforts were afoot in the pre-Challenger era to send at least one Briton into orbit aboard the shuttle. Squadron Leader Nigel Wood of the Royal Air Force was slated to fly in June 1986 as a payload specialist to observe the deployment of the Ministry of Defence’s Skynet 4A communications satellite. Planning for this mission had been formally announced more than two years earlier, in January 1984, when the MoD revealed that it would launch Skynet 4A and 4B on the shuttle. However, it reserved the right to fly its third satellite—Skynet 4C—aboard Ariane, thereby demonstrating visible support for the European booster. “The £60 million or so that it will cost to fly two Skynet 4s on Shuttle is probably slightly cheaper than flying on Ariane,” Flight International reported at the time, “and no doubt was a factor in selecting the American launcher.”
Rumours of shortlisted candidates from the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy proved accurate when, in February 1984, four finalists were selected. In addition to Wood, they were civilian physicist Christopher Holmes, who was the deputy manager of the Skynet 4 project, together with two military officers, Peter Longhurst of the Navy and Tony Boyle of the Royal Signals. (Boyle was replaced by fellow Signals officer Richard Farrimond in July.) Wood’s selection as the prime payload specialist was revealed in May 1985, and he trained to conduct a series of six British experiments focusing on the effects of cosmic radiation, changes in head-eye co-ordination and adaptation to weightlessness, studies of adhesive bonding, the ability to estimate mass in microgravity, motor skills—including postural control—and an ergonomics experiment. The loss of Challenger in January 1986 ended Wood’s chances of ever reaching space.
Then came “Project Juno,” the effort to send a Briton into space aboard a Soviet Soyuz-TM spacecraft for a week-long mission to Mir. And for Helen Patricia Sharman the radio announcement of Astronaut Wanted, No Experience Necessary was aired in June 1989, whilst she was sitting in a traffic jam during the drive home from her employer, the Mars confectionery company, in Slough, Berkshire, where she worked as a research chemist investigating the flavourant properties of chocolate. The 26-year-old Sharman was heading back to her flat in Surbiton, southwest London, and in her autobiography, Seize the Moment, she described the events of that evening as “the rarest of moments,” which hindsight would convince her was “the crucial, pivotal moment in my life.” From that moment onward, she was an integral part of the selection process for Britain’s first astronaut … and less than two years later, in May 1991, she became not only the first Briton ever to enter space, but made the United Kingdom the first of only three nations to date to have a woman as its first astronaut. (Sharman has since been joined by Iran’s Anousheh Ansari in 2006 and by South Korea’s Yi So-yeon in 2008.)
Sharman was born in Grenoside, a suburb of the industrial city of Sheffield, Yorkshire, on 30 May 1963, the daughter of a college lecturer father and a nurse mother, and received much of her early education in her home town. In her autobiography, she described her upbringing as decidedly unremarkable and eventually entered the University of Sheffield to study chemistry, graduating in 1984. She first worked as an engineer for the General Electric Company in London—“even though the salary on offer was the lowest,” she admitted, “the work they were offering was varied … [and] I wanted to sample the bright lights of the South-East”—and her role encompassed solving production problems, organising schedules, and doing research and development of cathode ray tube components.
At length, GEC offered her the chance to pursue a PhD in chemistry, and in 1985 Sharman enrolled at Birkbeck College in London to explore the luminescence of rare-earth ions in crystals and glasses. Two years later, she began working for Mars Confectionery as a research technologist planning new ice-cream products. Sharman found the work fascinating, not least in the fact that it enabled her to incorporate many facets of everyday life into her work. “It’s no good understanding and manipulating the chemistry of emulsifiers in your ice-cream,” she wrote, “if the toffee falls off the ice-cream before it’s had a chance to harden.” That technical knowledge and practical experience, coupled with Sharman’s uncommon ability to interact with people of different ages and backgrounds, would serve her well in the Project Juno selection process.
Astronaut Wanted, No Experience Necessary …
As she drove home on that June evening in 1989, Sharman found herself musing on the fact that the job of astronaut—a career path that she had never considered possible—was fairly straightforward … at least on paper. She was British, she was aged between 21 and 40 years old, she had a formal scientific training, she had a proven ability to learn a foreign language (Sharman spoke French and German), and she had a high standard of physical fitness. When she applied, she was asked for a few basic details about herself, completed a form, and became one of more than 13,000 people who applied for the role. In the weeks which followed, the names were winnowed down to 150 and that of Sharman remained on the list. She attended a medical evaluation in London in August, which made her a member of the final 32 candidates, and was subsequently called to a meeting at Brunel University.
Whilst she was there, Sharman met fellow finalist Major Tim Mace, a 34-year-old helicopter pilot and accomplished parachutist in the Royal Army Air Corps. He was, she later wrote, “a pilot, an aeronautical engineer, and … Britain’s skydiving champion.” (Later in his career, Mace went on to serve in South Africa as President Nelson Mandela’s helicopter pilot.) In Seize the Moment, Sharman recalled her personal conviction at the time that the smooth-talking Mace stood out as an obvious front-runner in the Juno competition.
“The stakes were much higher than any of us had realised,” wrote Sharman. “The publicity would fuel the sponsorship, but for most of the applicants it would inevitably mean rejection in public.” As the selection process continued into the latter part of 1989, the 32 remaining candidates were reduced in number to just 22, and later to 16. It was at this stage that her chances of selection seemed to vanish. “It seemed that the Russians had said, of the candidates being tested in Britain,” Sharman explained, “that they wanted the two finalists to be of the same sex. They expressed no preference about male over female, but … with only two women left in the final 16, the odds against both of us beating all the men were negligible.”
That negligibility increased when the number was reduced to ten and the only other woman in the competition was eliminated; shortly thereafter, after a visit from Soviet doctors, only six candidates remained. By the beginning of November, the four finalists were announced: Sharman and Mace, together with Royal Navy flight surgeon Gordon Brooks and Kingston Polytechnic aeronautical engineer Clive Smith. And by the end of November, Sharman and Mace had been picked to train for the mission and were flown into a snowy Star City, near Moscow, to begin 18 months of intensive preparations.
It was during that time that Project Juno came to a figurative and literal crossroads, with the axe of cancellation hanging ominously for some time. Right from the start, it had been a commercial enterprise, with a reported Soviet fee of around $12 million (£7.5 million). In Britain, Antequera, Ltd., was established to administer the selection process and the mission itself, but by the spring of 1990 it was evident that sponsorship was falling far short of the required level. British Aerospace, Memorex, and Interflora had joined the pool of corporate sponsors, and ITV had bought the television rights, but the consortium as a whole failed to raise the entire sum. (Once aboard Mir, Sharman would participate in a televised advert for Interflora, by “ordering” flowers for delivery to her mother.)
A paltry $1.7 in commercial revenue was generated and Antequera was dissolved. In the wake of this event, the British government refused to support the mission. Thankfully, by December, word reached Sharman and Mace that Moscow Norodny Bank—a Russian-owned (but London-based) commercial venture—had agreed to underwrite the final stages of Project Juno. In her autobiography, Sharman described the bank as “our white knight.” It is believed that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev personally insisted that the mission proceed at his country’s cost, in the interests of furthering international relations.
Quoted by Flight International in June 1991, veteran cosmonaut Alexei Leonov damningly noted that Project Juno “has not added to the prestige of our space research programme,” although he acquiesced that Sharman herself worked “magnificently.” To be fair, the financial situation posed little difference to the daily work of the cosmonaut trainees, but it was an embarrassment for Britain that their first foray into human space exploration should have been so mired with financial difficulties and should have come so close to the brink of outright collapse.
From an international perspective, it was humiliating that one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on Earth should have been unwilling to claw itself out of such a position of reliance upon the Soviet Union. Its scientific questionability was placed on an equal footing to the flight of Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama, whose mission to Mir in December 1990 included televised broadcasts, the carriage of a few Japanese tree frogs and precious little else, and there was concern in the early stages of 1991 that Project Juno was an abject failure, even as a publicity stunt.
Writing in mid-May 1991, aerospace journalist Tim Furniss noted that France and Germany—the latter struggling with the costly process of reunification, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall—had parted with $50 million between them to fly a pair of their cosmonauts to Mir in 1992. “Britain’s hitch-hike into space,” wrote Furniss, “is the subject of much mirth and, in some quarters, anger.” Project Juno and Britain’s first astronaut would have a lot to prove on the long-awaited mission.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.
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