Helen Shannan: banal nationalism and narratives of exploration
Helen Sharman’s personal story became an integral part of the narrative of the first Briton to go into space. Perhaps most remarkable was the fact that prior to her training at the Soviet space centre ‘Star City’, Sharman had no experience in space science, aeronautics, or the armed forces, characteristics which had been central to the profiles of most astronauts and cosmonauts since the advent of the Space Age. Indeed, from 1984 to 1986, four British military and defence department personnel had gone through astronaut training in the United States as Space Shuttle payload specialists as part of the Skynet military satellite programme, a project that was abandoned after the Challenger disaster in 1986.20 Sharman broke the mould, not least because she was a woman, and as she later recounted:
I did not know I was growing up to do the job I did. I did not even aspire to do that job. When the opportunity of the job came up, though, I was, quite unexpectedly, ready to do it.21
Sharman’s unconventional route into space began in June 1989, the moment she heard a radio advertisement for ‘Project Juno’ while driving home from work in Slough, on the outskirts of London. One widely recounted part of this story was the tagline of the radio ad, which idiosyncratically stated: ‘Astronaut wanted - no experience necessary'.22 Having scribbled down the phone number while waiting at traffic lights, Sharman made the call after a few days, barely giving it much serious thought at all. With her background in chemistry, she had been working at the confectionary giant Mars for a couple of years, enjoying the satisfaction that came with applying her specialist knowledge of food science to a fulfilling role with good career prospects. Indeed, she applied to Project Juno more as an exciting personal development opportunity rather than to be involved in a historic moment of national achievement.23
Project Juno was a collaborative venture between the Soviet space agency Glavkosmos and the British private company Antequera Ltd, involving aspects of popular science, public-private partnerships and public relations in its goal of sending a British visitor to the Mir space station. Around this time, Mir had started welcoming high-profile paying visitors from non-Soviet nations, becoming characterised as a ‘kind of space hotel’.24 Recognising this opportunity, Project Juno was co-founded by the German-British scientist Heinz Wolff, who had become known as a television presenter and populariser of science in Britain during the 1970s and 80s.25 The project’s founders also understood that the recruitment competition would feed into the publicity machine, and set the eligibility criteria in broad terms: applicants had to be UK citizens between the ages of 21 and 40, to have been trained in any branch of science, to have the proven ability to learn a foreign language, and to be in a good state of health. Over 13,000 applications were received, a number that was gradually whittled down to four: Helen Sharman, Clive Smith, Major Timothy Mace, and Lieutenant-Commander Gordon Brooks. The names were announced in November 1989, initiating an intense period of media scrutiny that culminated in a live television programme hosted by Anne Diamond in which the ‘winner’ was announced. While the candidates were said to have felt uncomfortable at the level of media interest, they understood that ‘the publicity would fuel the sponsorship’, and that this was integral to the project as a whole.26 At this point, the discourse around Project Juno diverged between the experiences of the prospective cosmonauts, for whom science and the prospect of spaceflight were the primary objectives, and the public narratives that surrounded them, in a mixture of orchestrated public relations and unscripted stories in the national media.
The media narratives around Project Juno were revealing in terms of the ways in which the final candidates were presented as potential icons of British exploration. Sharman recalled how one tabloid, Today, portrayed the other three finalists according to various male archetypes; ‘the family man [...] the James Bond lookalike [...] the Officer and Gentleman’, with Sharman reduced to the role of‘Token woman’.27 When she revealed that she worked for the Mars Corporation. Sharman was predictably labelled ‘the girl from Mars’ in various news outlets, a moniker that assigned her as the alien outsider, while also infantilising her.28 However, not all commentators drew consistently from this pool of sexist clichés, and, while initially suggesting that Sharman might contribute to Project Juno’s ‘showbiz image’, the Times technology correspondent Nick Nuttall, in a series of articles, came to praise Sharman’s ‘considerable fortitude’ and ‘impressive cool head’.29 Nuttall went on to portray in his articles a sense in which Sharman’s mission had largely failed to capture the imagination of the British public and had not roused the sentiments of nationalism that might have been expected in an achievement of such significance:
Even if the sponsorship promises had been realised, the nation was, in truth, never likely to have dusted down the Jubilee Union Jacks and huddled round the television sets as millions did when Apollo landed on the Moon.30
As Nuttall indicated, the funding model of Project Juno had broken down in the run-up to the launch, with sponsors failing to materialise in sufficient force. This resulted in the departure from the project of Heinz Wolff, whose involvement had been contingent on the possibility of conducting ‘British scientific experiments’ on Mir, and the mission was placed in considerable jeopardy before being rescued at the last minute by the Soviet-backed Moscow Narodny Bank.31
Here it is possible to identify several factors that contributed to the relative absence of nationalistic support from the UK media and general public as the mission was planned and executed: Firstly, a sense in which heroic British achievements were incompatible with a figure such as Sharman, a relatively normal, perhaps dispassionate, female figure from a non-military background, a feeling that was partly reflected through overt chauvinism in various media portrayals. British heroes of exploration had tended to conform to the image of rugged, adventurous men such as Ernest Shackleton or Edmund Hillary (even though the latter was a New Zealander), and Sharman simply did not fit into this prescribed role.32 Second, the fact that it was not funded and directed by UK institutions perhaps naturally led to Project Juno having a fairly low national profile, a factor that was made more significant through figures such as Wolff withdrawing. Finally, the practices of private sponsorship lent Project Juno a somewhat superficial gloss, the selection procedure in particular being presented akin to a game show competition rather than as part of a national scientific endeavour of historic significance. Yet expressions of nationhood were not completely lacking in Project Juno, as became apparent during the launch itself and the mission aboard Mir.
When reading and listening to first-hand accounts of Helen Sharman’s journey into space, a tension emerges between the formal geopolitical staging associated with her mission and her personal experience of spaceflight. As such, the geopolitical atmosphere near the end of the Cold War fed into the official choreography of the mission. The four Project Juno finalists arrived in the Soviet Union on the 12th November 1989, just two days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while Soyuz TM-12 launched in May 1991, just months before an attempted coup against Premier Mikhail Gorbachev brought about the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union. Sharman and her understudy Tim Mace were insulated from the immediate effects of such events, and their role as cosmonauts-in-training during this period reflected an apparent ease in relations between East and West. Furthermore, during her stay on board Mir, Sharman participated in a telephone call with Gorbachev. Her account of this call spends more time explaining how it interrupted the crew’s first hot meal in two days (‘we felt it was worth breaking off our meal for that!’) than recounting what was actually said.33 Similarly, Sharman’s last full day in the UK before the mission was ‘dominated’ by a meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.34 While it is hard to afford Project Juno any great geopolitical significance, it is perhaps best described as a symbolic reflection of a particular moment in UK-Russian relations, when the opening up of the Soviet regime was just about to reach a critical point. While these aspects of the mission were formal, they were also highly staged, artificial and performative in terms of their nationalistic intent. It is only when moving to the contrasting scale of personal experience that it is possible to gain deeper insights into Sharman’s sense of individual agency as the first Briton in space.
Sharman’s experience of being launched into space and spending seven days on Mir in many ways epitomised her hybrid identity as a UK citizen trained under the Soviet spaceflight regime - part astronaut, part cosmonaut. Her eighteen months of training at Star City not only involved physical, psychological and medical tests, but also a sense in which she was being trained in the traditions of Soviet spaceflight. This was apparent in the immediate run-up to the launch, when having 'learned to revere and cherish’ the legacy of Yuri Gagarin, ‘just as all the other cosmonauts did’, Sharman participated in many of the traditions of Soviet cosmonauts, such as signing her name on the door of the accommodation block prior to her launch.35 She took these performances in her stride, partly out of respect for her hosts and partly out of a genuine sense of reverence for the achievements of the Soviet space programme.36 As part of the official framing of the mission, a series of symbolic representations also epitomised a sense of bilateral national partnership. This was apparent from the launch, with the Soyuz rocket emblazoned with both the Soviet and UK flags, as part of the official insignia of Project Juno, and in official photographs of the cosmonauts in front of both flags (Fig. 7.1). Unlike the overtly nationalistic flagging of the ‘stars and stripes’ on the lunar surface two decades earlier,
Figure 7.1 Crew photo for Soyuz TM-12, featuring cosmonauts Artsebarsky, Sharman and Kirikalyov
Source Credit: spacefacts.de/Joachim Becker
Space exploration, science and nationalism 143 this form of national symbolism serves as an example of the ‘unwaved flag', a banal nationalism which the cosmonauts, both Soviet and British, seemed to have tolerated rather than celebrated.’7
Indeed, there is a sense in which national flagging was understood by Sharman as a routine duty rather than as an essential part of her role as the first Briton in space. By contrast, her overriding memories from her time on board Mir seem to have coalesced around two kinds of experience. Firstly, along with a strong sense of comradeship felt towards her crewmates, Mir itself took on a set of benevolent characteristics:
The space station was my home and my feelings about it were more complete than I have ever felt for any flat or house I’ve lived in [...] the station had life!-’8
The second overriding set of memories that Sharman recalled following the mission was associated with looking back at the Earth. Spending ‘long periods at the window’, Sharman explained how ‘the world acquired an immensity that until then had only been academic’.39 This sense of sheer size became apparent as the orbital pathway of Mir sent it rapidly across the surface of the Earth, covering large swathes of the planet at an altitude of around 200 miles. While marvelling at the beauty and immensity of the Earth, Sharman was also able to identify particular places on the surface:
I could see the distinctive shape of Britain (often covered in cloud). I always had a warm and sentimental feeling whenever I could see parts of the world that I knew well40
Here, a sense of affective national identity is apparent, as Sharman depicts the familiar, homely feeling associated with Britain, which is also described as having an appearance of‘brown soil with bubbly greyer bits, which must have been the towns. Very uninspiring!’.41 The mundane or everyday aspects of the image of Britain from space - the weather, the brown soil - contributed to Sharman’s personal sense of national identity, but did not leech into expressions of nationalism. As she departed the space station at the end of her mission, Sharman chatted over the radio with the cosmonauts who had remained behind, and having left them a mix-tape of her favourite songs as a parting gift, the track ‘World Outside Your Window' by the British folk singer Tanita Tikaram was relayed over the radio to the departing capsule.
While perhaps not being elevated to the status of national icon upon her return to Earth, Sharman spent several years touring the UK talking about her spaceflight experience, before deciding to withdraw from public life and continue her research career in chemistry at Imperial College London. One of the most prominent ways in which Sharman’s mission to Mir has been remembered in the public realm is through the display of artefacts at the UK’s National Space Centre in Leicester, which opened in 2001. Here, in
Figure 7.2 Helen Sharman's launch couch and spacesuit, exhibited at the National Space Centre, Leicester
Source Credit: National Space Centre
the ‘Into Space’ gallery, the Kazbek-U Shock Absorbing Couch that carried Sharman into space and back to Earth is displayed, along with her Sokol KV-2 Rescue Spacesuit, that she used in training (Fig. 7.2). Her lightweight Cosmonaut Flightsuit and Mir Hygiene Kit (containing hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpicks, comb and nail file) are also displayed. The National Space Centre object page for the Kazbek couch describes the combined couch-spacesuit display as intended ‘to demonstrate the conditions for cosmonauts during launch and landing’.42 Indeed, the exhibit is notable for the way in which the human form is positioned, cramped and recumbent, the only visible means of agency being the blue stick protruding between the legs, which holds a button that was used to activate the ground-control communications system. Sharman herself is represented by a white mannequin within the spacesuit.
This display to some extent re-enforces certain media narratives prior to Sharman’s mission, as she is presented as a passive traveller aboard the Soyuz spacecraft, or ‘more of a tourist than a cosmonaut’, rather than being actively heroic in the mould of the popularly imagined, male, adventurous British explorer.43 At the National Space Centre, the national flagging on the spacesuit along with Sharman’s prominent status as the first Briton in space contrasts with the somewhat low-key status of the display. Indeed, Sharman’s public legacy was even said to have been ‘written out of history’ in one account some years later, contributing to a sense in which Sharman’s
Space exploration, science and nationalism 145 achievements became relegated to a blind-spot in the national past.44 Moreover, the nationalistic aspects to the story of the first Briton in space can be understood in terms of the personal sense of national identity that Sharman felt while orbiting the Earth in Mir, the banal forms of national flagging that decorated her mission in official representations, and the geopolitical symbolism that surrounded the mission as a whole. What remains is an acknowledgement of what was not messaged in accounts of Sharman’s experience in media stories, and perhaps even a sense of forgetting in the public memorialisation of the event. This acts as a reminder of the ways in which national memory is socially, culturally and politically arbitrated, and reinforces a sense in which the anticipation of British achievement in space that had been building for much of the twentieth century, had ultimately been left unresolved in the national psyche.