Doctor Helen Sharman (OBE, PhD to give her full dues) is one pioneering woman I'd like to discuss today.
Helen Sharman was the first Briton in space. In fact she’s still the only person with sole British nationality to go into space (every other British person to go into space has joint US/UK citizenship, or UK/South African in one case). She remains the only British woman to have left Earth, and is one of less than 50 women who have been into space (roughly 10% of all astronauts have been female).
Even more impressively she wasn’t picked by a lottery system – all applicants were tested on fitness, as well as their scientific, educational, and aerospace background. Despite not having an aerospace background (she’d worked as a food technologist coming up with new flavours of chocolate) Helen excelled so much in the other fields she that she was chosen. Either that or the Russian judges got confused and thought Mars Confectionaries was a space agency…
She underwent 18 months of grueling training in Soviet Russia (Glasnost was underway but the USSR wasn’t dissolved until 26th December 1991). On the eve of the launch it looked as if it would be cancelled after private funding from the UK failed to materialise. However, Mikhail Gorbarchev personally stepped in to save the day in the interests of international co-operation after the British government refused to contribute towards the cost.
Finally on 26 May 1991 she flew into space with 2 Russian Cosmonauts and spent just under 8 days onboard Mir doing a series of experiments, including talking to a classroom of British school kids via ham radio and an agricultural experiment to see how well pansies grew in weightless conditions (‘not very well’ was the answer).
She never returned to space, but was a shortlisted candidate for the European Space Agency in 1992 and again in 1998.
Since returning to Earth she became a broadcaster and lecturer, hoping to inspire a new generation of men and women into joining the fields of science, before withdrawing from the public eye about 10 years ago, citing press intrusion into her private life.
As a final note - as well as igniting the hopes of others she is famous secondly for nearly extinguishing them! During the 1991 World Student Games she was selected as a torch bearer to light the ceremonial flame. 100m from the finish she tripped (live on national TV) and broke the torch. But in a feat of spur-of-the-moment engineering genius that Geordi La Forge would be pleased with she managed to jimmy together a scoop with the pieces and ignited the flame with the dying embers of the torch.