Helen Sharman at Aerospace Bristol

When I heard that Aerospace Bristol would be holding a Family Space Day on Monday 25th October, with Helen Sharman, the UK’s first astronaut, giving a talk under the wings of concorde, I immediately booked a ticket. It was clearly a day aimed at kids and was at the beginning of half term, so any adult ticket was also supposed to be purchased with a kid’s ticket, so I asked El if her neighbour’s son fancied coming with me. I hadn’t met Ashwin properly before but I knew from El that he was really impressed with my application to be an astronaut so it was really nice to be able to take him to space day to hear more about human spaceflight and space exploration with an 11 year old who already wants to be an aeronautical engineer.

Ashwin and I had excellent seats for the talk, right next to concord

Helen’s talk was really interesting. Her story in general terms is available online on Wikipedia and her website so I’ll not recount it fully.

Helen trained as a chemist and worked for Mars as a research scientist developing ice cream!

In 1989 she heard a radio job advert for Project Juno, offering a British citizen the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Mir Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, conducting experiments and enhancing British-Soviet relationships. Helen applied along with 13,000 other hopefuls and four Brits were eventually sent to Star City near Moscow for intensive training, firstly in Russian language then in the enormous raft of technical stuff they needed to know to fly in a Soyuz spacecraft and live on Mir Space Station conducting scientific experiments for a number of days before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere on the Soyuz.

Helen said she almost didn’t apply. There hadn’t ever been a British astronaut before, and the traditional perceptions of an astronaut included strong, tough, military types. Bold test pilots. For a short while she worried about being laughed at. And then she realised that she wasn’t going to let that get in the way! She met the criteria and was especially excited at the prospect of learning Russian.

Helen’s training started with intensive Russian language and then moved onto rockets, aerodynamics and astronavigation and then she moved on to learning about every aspect of the Soyuz spacecraft, spending hours in the Soyuz simulator. She also had to prepare for her role as a Research Cosmonaut at the same time as learning to undertake all of the other roles so she could step in if necessary.

Some parts of the training sounded particularly interesting and challenging.

The Soviet emergency drills included splash landing and sea survival training lasting 3 days to ensure the crew would know how to cope if it took three days for them to be recovered after reentry.

The weightlessness training sounded pretty cool! Most people know this as the Vomet Comet. A Soviet Illyushin 76 commercial freighter with its cavernous inside emptied out was flown up to high altitude and then allowed to freefall for 23 seconds, giving the lucky occupants the change to experience prolonged weightlessness, and the process is repeated again and again during the flight. Experienced trainers are in the cabin to help the trainees get used to moving around and getting into their suits. And they are also on hand to avert injuries as the funny thing that most newbies automatically do is to push off the floor and smash their heads into the ceiling!

After Helen described her 18 months of tough training, she spoke about her mission.

Helen told us that the gravity experienced during the real launch was about 4g compared to the centrifuge training which pushed her to a whopping 8g!

It would take less than 530 seconds for Helen and her comrades to be launched from Earth’s surface all the way up to an altitude and velocity suitable for orbiting the Earth. That’s less than 9 minutes for all of the different rocket stages to ignite, boost and thrust, before leaving the Soyuz hurtling around the Earth at a mighty velocity of 8,000 meters per second. The mind boggles.

Within a few hours of the final rocket stage being jettisoned and experiencing the real weightlessness of space, Helen reported that her face was really puffy. The weightlessness causes all of the fluid which usually flows down towards the feet to happily redistribute itself up on the face and chest and it usually takes astronauts 2-3 days to excrete this excess fluid.

Another interesting fact. At 400km above the Earth’s surface, Mir, and now the International Space Station actually experience a full 90% of the gravity on Earth’s surface…. Let that sink in… We see astronauts happily floating away in 90% gravity???

The trick here is that the Space Station is constantly falling towards the centre of the Earth and it is only because it is travelling so quickly on an orbit around the Earth that it doesn’t drop down… The Earth is constantly falling away from underneath the ISS and its gravity is effectively sling-shotting the ISS around! So… Weightlessness in space is actually due to falling constantly… Like the Vomet Comet, but on an epic scale.

Helen told us about her days on Mir Space Station. Mir was about 1/3 the size of the ISS. Her crew of 3 (captain Anatoly Artsebarsky and crew mate Sergei Krikalev) joined two other astronauts who had already been on the station for 6 months, with only the radio for company (these were the days before email and sat phones).

During Helen’s mission, she grew some potato roots. Growing fresh food to eat will be hugely important for any long-duration space voyages. The whole topic are is really fascinating and there are some interesting challenges for growing food in space!

Experiments have occurred over the past decades to understand and overcome various challenges. For example, leaves on Earth usually grow towards the light and roots orient themselves downwards due to gravity. In the microgravity environment of space, the roots of some plants grow into an unruly mess in every direction! Experiments have shown that growing seeds in a magnetic field can bring root growth under control. But even that isn’t enough! If you can persuade roots to grow where you want them, you still have to create the right material for them to grow into get the right nutrients. Experiments on the ISS also taught scientists about the need for air pockets in soil to assist with nutrient uptake. The progress has been pretty immense.

Now, astronauts on the ISS can grow a pretty cool variety of plants including quite a few types of salad leaves. One of the most exciting developments was being able to grow mustard leaves which are super spicy and can be tasted even when taste buds are dulled. Most food on the Space Station is mushy so anything crunchy and spicy is special.

The spicy food of choice tends to be chilli for the Americans, garlic for the Russians and horseradish for the Japanese.

The final interesting fact for today is linked to the air on the ISS. There is effectively no convection currents to move air around on the enclosed space stations, so air must be continuously pumped around, with oxygen added and carbon dioxide removed or else an astronaut would breathe in and out the exact same air and would suffocate! Some things are just so different in space.

I found a fairly interesting online interview with Helen Sharman

Some of the space-related anniversaries in 2021 listed on the Aerospace Bristol website

Ashwin and I also went to a really interesting talk about the Hubble Space Telescope and the new James Webb telescope which is due to launch very soon (scheduled for 18th December at the time of writing). There were some truly stunning images from the Hubble telescope but also from people like Tim Peake.

It’s worth checking out Tim’s flickr account because it has some real stunners including these:

Himalayas seen from the ISS
Soyuz Capsule with the Aurora as a backdrop, image title “My Ride Home

Another fascinating part of the talk was finding out that the Hubble Space Telescope has been the most productive scientific instrument ever produced, with over 25,000 scientific papers published from Hubble investigations. And the future is looking bright for the pairing of the Hubble and James Webb scopes, with Hubble’s fine detail (could see a candle flame on the moon or a human hair a mile away) combined with the Infrared images to be snapped by the James Webb set to expand our horizons even further.

Overall it was a fantastic day and I’m really lucky to be in the right place at the right time to attend!

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