An Afternoon With an Astronaut: Helen Sharman at the Norwich Science Festival

By Luke Farnish and David Winlo

As the 2017 Norwich Science Festival continues in full swing, Norwich Cathedral plays host to one of the festival’s main events: a fascinating talk by Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman.

The talk began with Helen discussing her early career, from her degree in chemistry to working to produce computer screens, chocolate, and ice-cream with no intention of becoming an astronaut. That all changed for her in 1989 when, following applying to a public advert calling for astronaut candidates, she began her training in the USSR, then in its final weeks. Helen discussed this training period, learning to speak Russian, having her spacesuit fitted and experiencing weightlessness for the first time, in an aircraft infamous among astronauts by its apt nickname: the vomit comet. By 1991 she was ready for her flight.

Helen described the launch of her Soyuz spacecraft from Kazakhstan in great detail, recalling the force of the launch and the release from the weight of her body. She also discussed the rocket itself, including its kerosene fuel combined with oxygen which was liquid to save space, and its immense speed, explaining that at orbital velocity one could make the journey from Norwich to London in just 22 seconds – the dream, as she said, of anyone who actually has to make that journey regularly by train.

The audience remained gripped as Helen spoke passionately about her experiments aboard the Russian space-station Mir, demonstrating the way potato roots grow without the influence of gravity and how protein crystals form, relating them to drugs that have been developed because of this sort of work.

The obvious question of how astronauts use the toilet was addressed next, along with further insightful information and anecdotes about life in space, showing pictures of her sleeping area and of other crewmembers sleeping. If you, like most people Helen meets, were wondering about that toilet question, it’s actually quite simple. They position themselves over a yellow funnel protruding from the main machine, which pushes air through the funnel so waste just falls through as it would on Earth. The key difference really is that the waste is then recycled, made into water which is safe to drink or add to the air on the station as water vapour. She spoke of her return to earth eight days after launch and her surprisingly swift recovery.

Helen’s hopes for the future were clear, as she enthused every child in the audience with the knowledge that the first Martian astronauts are likely currently in school. The issues of the journey to Mars were highlighted, the need to protect the crew from radiation and grow food during the journey. At the moment, astronauts are unable to grow fruit in space, for reasons as yet unclear, but the radiation is a decidedly bigger problem, with death essentially a certainty until the technology is improved.

After a short comfort break, the audience returned to ask questions. Many of the people who asked were the young scientists of the future. Questions included if Helen had seen an alien. She explained that she hadn’t consciously seen one but that perhaps aliens exist in a way that humans cannot see, so maybe, just maybe, she had seen one, and not known.

Since the question of using the toilet had been anticipated, another bathroom appliance was chosen by one child to ask about, and not having thought about it before ourselves, we were quite pleased to hear the answer. When using the shower in space, it is once again air flow that is used to push water from one part of the shower area onto the astronaut so it flows down the body as it would on Earth, with a second funnel using a second current of air to form a ‘drain’. The water is nevertheless weightless in between the funnels, and consequently gets in your eyes a fair bit. What one imagines would be more annoying is the fact that to set up, use and power down this appliance takes a total of eight hours! Fortunately, space is really quite clean and quite free of other people, so there is seldom a queue.

When asked what song she would choose if she were to sing in space like Chris Hadfield, she replied that she had a poor singing voice, but that when she had been on Mir she had particularly enjoyed the song ‘World Outside Your Window’ by Tanita Tikram and so that song had meaning to her, particularly from it being played from the station as she left to return to Earth.

After the main event, a privileged few who either bought tickets well in advance, or were lucky members of the general and university press, were allowed to meet Helen and talk briefly with her. In person, she proved just as friendly and interesting as during her talk, and when we asked her about the lack of inclusion and representation of women in science, a frequent topic of discussion on the popular third year module, ‘Science Communication’, she replied that such a complicated issue must be addressed from multiple angles, for example in schools, the media, with parents, and so on. She was also kind enough to allow us to take the photo of her with Science Co-Editor, David Winlo, seen above this article.

The Norwich Science Festival will continue for another day, so you have until the end of Sunday to come along and experience one of the exciting and engaging events.

Image courtesy of Luke Farnish. Special thanks to Jan Robertson and to Helen Sharman herself for this wonderful opportunity.

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