Twenty-Five Years Ago, Helen Sharman Traveled to Space as a Private Citizen

A decade before space tourist Dennis Tito, the British chemist answered an ad and won the trip of a lifetime.

Helen Sharman - The first Briton in space

This morning—8:50 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time, to be exact—marked the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Soyuz TM-12 that carried Helen Sharman to the Mir space station. Accompanied by commander Anatoly Artebartsky and flight engineer Sergei Krikalev, Sharman, a 27-year-old chemist from Sheffield, England, became the first Briton, and one of the first private citizens, to fly in space, a decade before space tourists like U.S. millionaire Dennis Tito began buying tickets to the International Space Station.

Sharman, who is now at Imperial College London, has not returned to space since the conclusion of her eight-day mission in May 1991. She was shortlisted for European Space Agency missions in 1992 and 1998. But her name returned to public discourse in December, when various media outlets erroneously proclaimed ESA astronaut Tim Peake the first Briton in space. Peake was the first Englishman to fly on an ESA mission, and the first to join the crew of the International Space Station. But other people born in the U.K. have been in space, and Sharman paved the way.

Answering a 1989 radio advertisement seeking an astronaut—“no experience necessary”—Sharman was selected from a pool of some 13,000 applicants to join Project Juno, a private British space program. Along with the other finalist, Major Timothy Mace of the Royal Army Air Corps, Sharman completed an 18-month course of training at Star City in advance of the mission. Three months before launch, Air Vice Marshal Peter Howard traveled to Moscow to tell Sharman she would be the British crewmember, and Mace would be her backup. (Mace died of cancer in 2014, at the age of 58.)

One person who’s well aware of Sharman’s contribution to space history is Peake. When he launched to the International Space Station last December he carried with him the same copy of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s memoir Road to the Stars that Sharman brought to Mir in 1991. Sharman’s fellow cosmonauts had signed the volume and presented it to her during her training in Moscow, she told the Guardian last November. She said that Peake’s crewmates would add their signatures to the book before he returned it to Earth, and he and Sharman will donate it to a museum.

Sharman’s spacesuit is on display at the Museum of Science in London. She recalled her time in space on the BBC this week, and urged the British government to continue funding spaceflight after Peake’s return to Earth in June. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.