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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 13:36 GMT
Mir: A cosmonaut remembers
Helen Sharman: Comradeship in space
Helen Sharman flew to Mir in 1991, spending just over a week on board the space station. In making the trip, she became the first Briton to go into space. Here she recalls her time on the Russian spacecraft.

I remember the launch. It was the most exciting day, I suppose, of all. I'd done 18 months of training, mostly in Star City, near Moscow. So it was a slow build-up: two weeks of quarantine in Kazakhstan and then two and a half hours on top of a rocket, waiting for that launch, going through all of the checks.

I was with two other people: a commander and an engineer - both Soviets, one Russian and one from Ukraine. And we'd become quite close by then. But gradually, as the time ticked by and the checks went on, we realised that there was literally no going back. Whichever way you were going, you were going up, even if you came back pretty quickly.

But the launch went pretty much to plan. We had one or two little hiccups. But basically the rocket engines fired, the gantry pulled back, and off we went - though not as quickly as it sometimes appears on film.

You're just about hovering above the ground, and then gradually the thrust builds up and then you feel that acceleration; you're being pushed back into your seat - lumpy and bumpy, because there are different rocket stages. And as you jettison one rocket stage, there's a split second before the next one kicks in.

Blue down, black up

You jettison the faring - this is the covering that protects the outside of the whole rocket and spacecraft from the atmosphere as you're going through it, otherwise you'd just burn up. Once that has gone you get your first view out of the window.

The launch was the most exciting moment
The sunlight just streamed in. We were over the Pacific Ocean. We could already see that down was the blue sea and up was black space. And, after nine minutes, it was all over. Bang! The final rocket engine was jettisoned. And there we were, floating - just feeling weightless.

After two days of orbiting the Earth - just going round and round the Earth - we eventually caught up with the Mir Space Station. As we made our final approach we realised something was wrong. We'd lost one of the antennae, we think during the launch phase, which meant that we couldn't do an automatic docking on to the space station.

So the three of us had to steer the spacecraft manually towards Mir. But it was something we'd done in the training - although you know it's your life at risk at this stage if you get it wrong.

Spirit of closeness

But that was, in a way, a nice thing - partly because we got it right, so we stayed alive, but partly because it meant we became even closer. We worked very closely as a team.

When we did dock on to the Mir space station, opened the hatch and floated inside, there was this wonderful feeling of relief, of team spirit, of closeness. And we had a party with the two people already on board.

On the first night, we were allowed some time to relax and just be together. But when we woke up the next morning, the experiments started. I was doing experiments on my body and on the cosmonauts' bodies, and with plants and growing crystals - all sorts of fascinating things.

We had a schedule from Mission Control on Earth. Minute by minute, we knew exactly what to do and when. There was usually a couple of hours later on in the evening when we could repeat things if necessary, go over things if something just hadn't gone quite right, or if there wasn't enough power supply at the right time.

The saddest time

The two people who were already on board the space station had been there for six months. So I think they were very pleased just to share some more company - somebody else to talk to.

Helen is now a broadcaster
Coming back to Earth was very hard for me because I simply didn't want to come back just then. In space for eight days - it just wasn't enough. There was so much more I wanted to do. But also I left behind my crew: the commander and engineer with whom I had flown into space, two people with whom I had become extremely close.

It was very, very difficult saying goodbye to them and actually climbing into the spacecraft to return to Earth. I remember closing the hatch.

We could still hear them moving about inside the space station while we were attached, and for a while we could still talk on the radio. But as we moved away the voices started to break up. That was the saddest time for me.

Fiery descent




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