Hayley Dunning explores the on-again, off-again relationship between Britain’s first astronaut and her interstellar attire.
To remember holidays and trips-of-a-lifetime, we take photos, tell our friends of our adventures, and reminisce with souvenirs.
When British scientist Helen Sharman visited the Mir space station in 1991, luggage allowances were tighter than a budget airline, and not much could be made into a memento. And in a time before digital photography had become ubiquitous, she only managed to snap a scant few photos during her time in space.
There was one particular provision for Sharman’s trip, though, made especially for her. But even that she wasn’t allowed to keep, and today she isn’t even allowed to touch it.
The Sokol spacesuit, tailor-made for Sharman — Britain’s first astronaut — was created in the same Moscow factory that produced the suits of famous Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, and even Laika, the first dog in space.
“It was made-to-measure,” Sharman explains. “I never had a made-to-measure suit before and never since.”
In 1989, aged 27, and working as a chemist at confectionary company Mars, Sharman responded to a radio advert inviting applications for a Mission to Mir, ‘no experience necessary’. She was one of four potential candidates (later cut to two) selected from the 13,000 expressions of interest received, and sent to Russia for pre-space preparations.
Cosmonauts at the Star City Training Centre usually practice with previous travellers’ suits, but most of the ones available were too big for Sharman. So, after taking hundreds of measurements of her body, a custom suit was created. But the first time she tried it on, it was… tight. When she told the makers that she couldn’t imagine sitting in it for five hours solid during launch, they looked “disgruntled”. The knees they could adjust a bit; the pipes and tubes pressing on her collarbones she would just have to deal with.
After that initial fitting, the next time she put it on was during three hours of solitary confinement, in a vacuum: “the Russians liked to combine tests, so you think you’re not really being tested about something, but you are.” Lying back in a launch seat in isolation, her suit was her life support. She tried to read a magazine to pass the time, but the suit made one arm ache, and then another, until she gave up and sat out the hours, sans-stimuli.
Despite all the precise measurements and dress-rehearsals, Sharman and her Soviet crewmates were told to shed some weight just before launch. A computer had failed on the space station and in order to take up a spare, they needed to free up some more of the already-limited weight allowance.
It may have been tight and uncomfortable, but the suit did its job. “It’s an intimate garment,” Sharman says. “You wear it for the emotionally-charged times, the exciting times: launch, docking and landing. Not that I’m a big clothes horse normally, and there aren’t very many times I really remember my clothes, but I do remember that suit.”
Back on Earth after her eight-day mission, Sharman spent several years touring the country, talking about her time in space, before retreating from the limelight and the trappings of fame she found so unpleasant, for 10 years.
Her specially-made spacesuit followed a similar trajectory.
Instead of suffering the usual fate of a cosmonaut suit — the training pile — Russia saw an opportunity make some money off this historic item worn by Britain’s first astronaut. Sharman initially tried to help negotiate its sale to the Science Museum in London — “I knew I could never afford to buy it” — but the deal fell through, and the suit was put up for sale at Sotheby’s in 1993.
A photo-op at the famous auction house during which Sharman held up the limp suit under the arms was the last time she would touch it. It was bought by a private collector of spaceflight paraphernalia. Sharman believes the buyer was Dennis Tito, the American multi–millionaire who, in 2001, self-funded his own trip to the International Space Station and became the world’s first space tourist.
The suit was gone, and for nearly a decade it resided behind closed doors.
Then, around the turn of the Century, it came back on the market. This time, the Science Museum was successful, and Helen Sharman’s space suit found a new home in London, inside a glass case in South Kensington. In 2015 Sharman took a job just across the road at Imperial College London, as manager of the chemistry department.
Now, she can visit her suit whenever she likes. But she can’t put it on, or even touch it without gloves and a curator hovering nearby. And then only on special occasions, like when she recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her pioneering spaceflight.
“I can see it’s older. It’s darker. Something is changing the chemistry — the rubber inside must be stiffening up,” she says, adding, “it is a bit strange than you can only touch something with gloves on that you used to wear. And it wasn’t just like putting a pair of trousers on: I was totally inside it, sweating in it.”
Ironically, the one piece of clothing, one of the few keepsakes from her spaceflight that Helen Sharman does still have, is the one piece she’d rather not.
It’s traditional for cosmonauts to have an official group dinner on their first night on Mir, and as Sharman was the first woman to visit the space station, her Russian trainers decided she needed an evening dress for the occasion.
Without Sharman’s knowledge, Alexei Leonov (the first person to perform a spacewalk) had a pink, frilly chiffon, short-legged onesie made for her. It was not what Sharman herself would have chosen, but she played along and wore it anyway.
She left it on Mir. Luggage restrictions were tight, after all. Then, a few months after she returned to Earth, the Austrian astronaut Franz Viehböck, who visited Mir on the next mission after Sharman, invited her to press events in his country. Following a slap-up dinner one night, he presented her with a special gift — the “pink monstrosity”.
She says categorically: “And that’s the last time it’s been out in public.”
Images of Helen Sharman with the spacesuit by Thomas Angus / Imperial College London
Isolated spacesuit image courtesy of Science Museum
1991 images of Helen Sharman courtesy of Helen Sharman