Astronaut Wanted: No Experience Necessary

Women of the Sky talks with Helen Sharman OBE, the first Brit in space.

Helen Sharman was working as a chemist for a chocolate company when she heard a radio advert broadcasting a simple request: “Astronaut wanted: no experience necessary.”

She replied, one among 13,000 hopefuls, and was picked to become the first Brit to travel in space.

On May 18th she squeezed into a Soviet Soyuz TM-12 space capsule bound for the Mir space station.

She took with her a photo of the Queen, a butterfly broach her father gave her, and a ‘space passport’ in case they landed outside the Soviet Union on thier return.

She remains the only British national who hasn’t had to gain US citizenship before blasting off.

Since returning to earth Ms. Sharman has led a quiet life but on the 20th anniversary of her mission she shared her memories with Women of the Sky of those eight days in space.

Were you interested in science from an early age?

I have always been interested in what makes things the way they are, whether it be nature, astronomy or the workings of a car. My father is a physicist and I suppose it was his early explanations that made me realise how relevant to life is the understanding of science.

Out of all the people who replied to the radio ad what do you think made the organisers choose you?

The selection criteria for my mission were based on medical and psychological health and fitness, an ability to understand spacecraft systems and to perform experiments, an aptitude for foreign languages and the ability to work well in a team under stressful circumstances.

What is the training like for an aspiring astronaut?

My training consisted of learning Russian, theoretical lessons about astronavigation and ballistics, more practical spacecraft systems training and simulator work, weightless training, training to prepare us for a return into sea if necessary and learning about the experiments I was to perform.

Can you describe what take-off feels like?

The launch itself is not smooth but lumpy as fuel is used up and the engines are jettisoned. Sitting in the same cramped position wearing a space suit for the five hours before, during and after the launch is uncomfortable and sweaty.

However, the launch itself only lasts for eight minutes before the final rocket stage is jettisoned and the feeling of weightless begins, albeit while still strapped in a seat for two more hours.

What does weightlessness feel like?

Is it the most relaxing feeling I have ever experienced. Not standing or sitting yet just being is wonderful.

The nearest experience on Earth is to float on top of the water in a swimming pool without trying to move. Feeling weightless is something that takes a couple of days to get accustomed to.

Body fluids redistribute themselves towards your head to start with and it feels uncomfortable. The body excretes two litres of urine in addition to that which would be expected for the amount of fluids ingested, after which you feel more comfortable, but that has an effect on the physiology.

How did you deal with daily necessities like brushing your teeth and sleeping in space?

Brushing teeth is done with toothpaste that doesn’t foam as much as usual toothpaste so you don’t have to spit anything out. I slept in a sleeping bag that was tied to a wall of the spacecraft. There was a piece of the bag over my head to stop me from floating out during the night.

And the space food?

My space food was all Russian and preserved, so everything was in a can, a tube or a packet. Some of it, like soup, was dried and other items, like cream cheese, were in tubes like toothpaste. Tea and coffee can be drunk out of a packet, by squeezing the plastic sachet to get the drink to move through a flat straw and into your mouth. It was just fuel for our bodies but it was not unpleasant.

What were your duties in space?

Apart from some duties during the launch and landing, my work was to do experiments in space. I performed a range of experiments, which included the investigation of the growth of plants, the crystallisation of luciferase, the effect of weightlessness on the human body, the effect of radiation and vacuum on ceramic films, the air quality on board and the collection of some Earth observation data.

Most of my experiments were for the Soviet Space Agency but I was able to do a few activities for Britain. One was to take some pansy seeds into space with me, to store them on the space station and to bring them back to Earth.

The seeds, along with controls, were distributed to British schools for children to grow them to investigate what effects, if any, space travel had had on the seeds.

The result was that there was a small but significant difference in the average number of leaves on the plants; the space seeds grew with fewer leaves than the Earth seeds. I was also able to talk by radio to school children.

How did you stay in touch with the folks back home?

We were in touch with Mission control when we were over the Soviet Union and we were able to speak to people in other countries at certain times by radio. The long term cosmonauts had weekly video links with their families, who went to Mission Control in Moscow for the event. I took letters and photographs to the cosmonauts from their families.

Can you remember the views from space?

We have all seen photographs of the Earth from space and they are pretty accurate, except for the brilliance of the white of clouds and snow, the reflections at certain angles from still water and the depth of the blue of seas.

Of course, looking out of a spacecraft window, you often have do some guess work about the countries below because of the cloud cover (published photos are selected to show what is intended rather than to give any snap shot of what is visible).

Nobody tires of Earth watching, partly because the image is constantly changing: the spacecraft is orbiting the Earth and the Earth is spinning in space.

Our preferred method of relaxing was to gather by the largest window we had and talk about whatever came to mind as we passed over our families and friends below.

You were the first Briton in space and the only British astronaut who hasn’t had to get American citizenship. Are you optimistic other Brits will be able to follow in your footsteps?

Britain has had a policy of not supporting human spaceflight for decades now. NASA employs only American citizens. If you are British and you want to be an astronaut, the only way is to change your citizenship to become a national of a country with a space agency that might employ you as an astronaut.

Not everyone can do this but the British astronauts who have flown with NASA have either had dual citizenship to start with or have been able to obtain this in order to work for NASA. This is great for the individuals concerned and it increases the availability of information about space and spaceflight to other people in Britain, not least because of the interest shown by the media. All good stuff!

However, it has led to some confusion about the role the British Government has played in their flights. I am optimistic that the UK will soon support human spaceflight and that we will soon have another British astronaut who has not had to use another passport to get into space.

How important do you think space travel is to our future?

Arthur C. Clarke said that when an organism ceases to explore its environment, it stars to die. One day, the Earth will no longer be habitable but before that, learning about space tells us a lot about our own world. It gives us answers to questions about science, how the Earth came to be the way it is and our place in the Universe.

Now you work in science education.  How important do you think space is for inspiring an interest in science?

Space is a fascinating topic and it can make learning the basics of science really interesting.

I am a Patron of Spacelink Learning Foundation, a not for profit charity whose aim is to inspire and motivate young people to enjoy and study science, technology, engineering and maths subjects through innovative space-themed exercises.

Space is part of our life now and people everywhere want to know more. Young people are aware that space is likely to be even more useful to their future lives, whether it be everyday life or a career, than it has been to the lives of their parents.

It is a part of life that should not be ignored at school.

How do you see the future of space exploration in the UK?

In the short term future, Britain should contribute towards the European Space Agency’s human spaceflight programmes. We are already involved in many of the satellite programmes, in telecommunications, Earth observation and exploratory projects.

Commercial spaceflight is just beginning but already some tourists have been able to afford the time and money to undergo training and experience space for themselves. With an increasing number of commercial ventures competing for business and cash-strapped space agencies, tourism will become more commonplace.

How has your eight days in space changed you?

Coming back to Britain made me realise the extent of public interest in spaceflight generally, as well as in the mission I had just flown.

Being in space confirmed what I had learned in Russia, that material items are far less important in life than relationships with family and friends.

Did you hope to return to space?

Every astronaut wants to go back and I am no exception.

You can learn more about Helen Sharman and her current work at the Spacelink website.

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The Week in Women

WoS has scanned the week’s news from headlines to nibs, radio to blogs, to find the news and views shaping the skyline this week…

If not now, when?

He’s a tabloid’s dream politician but one million protestors have taken to the streets across Italy to demonstrate against their scandal ridden PM.  Prosecutors have applied to a Magistrate to have the PM put on trial for paying an underage girl for sex. If found guilty Berlusconi could face up to 15 years in prison.  Sunday protests were united the banner  ‘Se non ora quando?’ (if not now when) a banner chosen to reflect the frustration of Italian women.  Check out the BBC’s protest photos @

It takes a village

In a remote community in Liberia residents have found a simple but effective way of tackling violence against women and other violent crime.  The Eagle Eye Internet Report is actually hand-written on sheets of A4 and posted around town.  The leaflet reports and condemns incidents of violence, rape, domestic abuse.  Little other media reaches the village but in the small community fear of being named and shamed in the Eagle has proven a powerful disincentive.  An eagle writer said the Eagle Eye “brings out the news that is hiding.” Read the full story at Alertnet@

Do you feel safe?

Conservative MSP Bill Aitken came under fire this week for implying a woman who was raped in Glasgow may have been a hooker.  Speaking to the Herald Aitken said, “Somebody should be asking her what she was doing in Renfrew Lane. Did she go there with somebody? … Now, Renfrew Lane is known as a place where things happen, put it that way.”

He went on to say many allegations of rape were falsely made by women who had too much to drink and imply rape may be been a less serious crime if the woman in question was a prostitute.  Even more disconcerting, these comments came from Scotland’s Shadow minister for Community Safety. Read the full story at the F-word @

The sweet stuff

V-day is upon us.  Valentine’s day may be met with the same heady mix of anticipation and trepidation the world over but in Japan Valentines has a sweet twist.  Japanese women are expected to buy chocolate not just for their sweethearts but all the important men in their life from fathers to school teachers.  It might sound one-sided but men are expected to repay the favour on March 14 known as White Day. Listen to the full story@

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Who wears the trousers? Erauso-nun with a gun


Catalina de Erauso had a unsual start in life, unusual at least for an officer serving in the Spanish colonial army in the 1600s.  Erauso was raised by nuns in a convent in the Basque region of Spain. Her parents decided she  would take vows when she came of age and become a nun herself.  Erauso had other ideas.

Following a beating from one of the nuns she fled the convent. Armed with a small sewing kit, Erauso fashioned a man’s doublet out of old petticoats, cut her hair short and began a more colourful life than that of the average nun.

Though she abandoned the convent before taking vows, Erauso’s unlikely beginnings would follow her throughout her life, eventually earning her the title, the Lieutenant Nun.

Erauso remained in the Basque city of San Sebastián for a couple of years after her escape, working as a page-boy. Then, in search of grander adventures she took a job as a cabin boy, on a ship bound for the New World.  When the ship docked in Panama, she snuck to the shore.

On a new continent,  disguised convincingly as a man, her freedom might have been guaranteed but Erauso’s knack for attracting trouble meant she was constantly in danger of being imprisoned.

Her quick temper and fighting skills meant she rarely shied away from fight.  In Peru when a theatre-goer blocked her view of the stage she swiftly challenged him to a duel, slashed him across his face and stabbed his friend.

Luckily for Erauso her knack for getting into trouble was matched with a talent for getting out of it.  When threatened with arrest she took refuge in convents and churches. Though she was imprisoned over the course of her life and even faced two death sentences, she always managed to evade the full punishment.

It was Erauso’s service in the Spanish colonial army that would earn her the reputation as the fearsome Lieutenant Nun. Erauso joined the army under a false name and was posted to the Concepcion, Chile,where she was re-united with her elder brother, Miguel. Erauso’s transformation from girl to man was so convincing her own brother never recognized the soldier from Basque was his younger sister.  He did however take a liking to Erauso and offered her a post in his office in Chile.

In her memoirs Erauso described the years she spent serving alongside her brother as ‘the good life’ but the bliss wasn’t to last.  Erauso took a liking to her brother’s mistress, an awkward circumstance that eventually led to a fist-fight between the siblings.  Erauso was re-assigned to the bloody frontlines against the Mapuche Indians in Paicaibi, Chile.

Despite horrendous violence Eruaso excelled in battle and was eventually promoted to Lieutenant. She would go on to Captain her own company, but upon her return to Concepcion, Chile, Erauso’s good fortune began to flag.

Erauso stabbed a man and took refuge in a nearby church for several months.  She escaped arrest, only to become embroiled in another vicious duel, this time acting as back-up for a fellow army officer.  She stabbed her companion’s challenger but realised too late she had in fact killed her own brother.

Despite her brother’s death, Erauso continued duelling and scrapping.  When she murdered a man following an argument over a card game, Erauso’s luck seemed finally to have run out.  She was arrested, sentenced to death and even taken to the gallows.

When a fellow Basquero saw Erauso waiting to be hung he managed to win her a last minute pardon, and unbelievably, perhaps miraculously, the runaway from the convent was free again.

Undeterred, Erauso returned to her chaotic life, gambling, duelling and hiding out in churches and convents.  Following yet another duel Erauso took refuge in a church in Cuzco.  It was here that Bishop Juan Bautista somehow persuaded Eruaso to confess her whole remarkable life story and admit that she was in fact a woman.  The Bishop, believing her to be a nun offered her a place in convent, where Erauso would remain for two years.  She eventually walked free when word came from Spain proving she had never officially taken vows.

Perhaps finally exhausted the indomitable Erauso returned home to Spain.  Her cover by now was well and truly blown and the Lieutenant Nun had become something of a legend.

The most remarkable aspect of Erauso’s many adventures is perhaps  that, despite her unconventional choices and her very un-nunnish disposition to duelling, brawling and seducing, Erauso was welcomed home as a hero.

Upon her return King Felipe IV of Spain granted her a generous pension in return for her service in the army and Pope Urban VIII awarded her special dispensation to wear men’s clothing, which she continued to do for the remainder of her life.

With her freedom now fully secured, Erauso returned to the New World.  She is said to have lived out the rest of her life in Mexico working as a mule driver, perhaps finally enjoying a quieter life, but according the account of one friar who saw her, still wearing a sword and silver dagger.

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Who wears the trousers? Hua Mulan

History hasn’t always been kind to the women who aspired to adventure beyond the confines of the kitchen.  For centuries women often found themselves excluded from anything particularly interesting, a footnote to the great events of their time.

Those who did succeed in propelling themselves into the heart of the action had to be canny and for at least a few, trousers provided the ultimate leg up.

So this week Women of the Sky celebrates trousers and the women who wore them.  Now, of course, just about anyone reading this will be familiar with the joys of pants but, for the early adopters of the fashion staple trousers meant more than comfort…they meant freedom.

So here is the first installment in our five-part series examining the unlikely adventures of the trouser-wearers…

If she existed, the legendary warrior Hau Mulan may be one of the earliest adopters of men’s clothing.  She high-kicked her way into the hearts of a new generation in the Disney film, Mulan, but her true identity remains unclear.  The earliest record of the Ballad of Hua Mulan, transcribed in the 6th century, tells the story of the dutiful daughter who pretended to be a man so she could spare her elderly father the discomfort of war.

She’s said to have travelled ten thousand miles in the company of the army, fighting for 12 years and, eventually, appearing before the Emperor who offered her a post in his government in return for her service. Mulan declined, asking instead for a horse that could carry her the long distance home.

According to the ballad, Mulan’s comrades only realised she was a woman when they visited her at her family home.   Something may have been lost in translation but the last verse of the Ballad sums up Mulan’s story rather neatly


“The male rabbit’s feet kick up and down,
The female rabbit’s eyes are bewildered.
Two rabbits running close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am male or female?

Mulan’s adventures inspired not only the original Ballad and the Disney remake, complete with talking dragon side-kick.  Her story was expanded into a novel during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and had provided the inspiration for silent films, TV-dramas, even an opera film in Hong Kong.  Whether Mulan lived or was simply the work of popular legend remains unclear but her ability to capture hearts has kept the tale alive for centuries making her fine icon for trouser-wearing adventurers everywhere.

Throughout history Mulan would be joined by women who donned trousers, cut their hair short and swaggered onto the frontlines.  Not all would share her more daughterly motivations.  Some were motivated by patriotism, others the desire to uncover a scoop, and some, like our next cross-dressing heroine, seemed simply to be spoiling for a fight.

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Grab your sneakers Granny D!

“Democracy is not something we have, it’s something we do.”

-Doris Granny D Haddock

In January 1999 Doris Haddock laced up her sneakers and went for a walk.

She left the sun kissed sidewalks of Pasadena, a leafy suburb of Los Angeles, and headed East, all the way East in fact, to Washington DC.

This 89 year old widow, mother, grandmother and great grandmother would arrive on the steps of Capitol Hill four years later, having covered 22,000 miles by foot and at the height of winter by ski.

Her mission? To campaign against the malign influence of special interests and big money in American politics.

A year after completing her four year trek across America Granny D hit the headlines again when she ran for the US Senate in her home state of New Hampshire against a formidable opponent, Republican Greg Judd. True to her principles, Doris Haddock funded her senate run purely on small donations.

You can watch the documentary made about her run for the US senate online freely and legally at snag films: I’ve included a preview of Run, Granny Run below.

Doris Granny D Haddock died on March 9, 2010, aged 100. Her obituary in the Economist paid better tribute to Granny D’s life, work and epic trek than I ever could. You can read the full obit here:

Granny D died, still fighting for the campaign finance reform she believed would help return the power of democracy to the hands of ordinary Americans. Just days before she celebrated her 100th birthday, Granny D would see the most progressive step towards reform so far, the McCain-Feingold Act, overturned in the Supreme Court.

But the pensioner who trekked across America, who drove her brightly coloured vote-mobile through swing states, who had Senators cowering beneath her grandmother glare was not afraid of an uphill climb.

Faced with this latest roadblock Granny D was already planning the next step in her long walk. Her unflappable faith in the power of ordinary people and the value of democracy makes Doris ‘Granny D’ Haddock a natural woman of the sky.

Run Granny Run – Watch the Documentary Film for Free | Watch Free Documentaries Online | SnagFilms.

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Lady and the Zeppelin

On August 19, 1929 Lady Grace Drummond Hay stepped aboard the Graf Zeppelin as the only woman witness to the airship’s famous round-the-world voyage.

She joined a total of 60 other passengers and crew members, all men, for the historic journey.

Along with her fellow Hearst newspaper correspondents, Karl H. Von Wiegand and Sir George Hubert Wilkins, Lady Hay was responsible for relaying details of the journey to an eager public down below.

An article from TIME magazine recorded the zeppelin’s launch from Manhattan, NY:

“Marines, sailors and Boy Scouts relinquished the ropes which held her to earth. Up she nosed, and away, a steady-moving monster quickly lost in the darkness. Manhattan watchers heard her motors, saw her slummer through the murk. She circled the Statue of Liberty before heading to sea.”

The article also recorded Lady Hay’s observations of the moment the zeppelin soared towards the clouds.

“We passed from a symphony of silver to golden glory as the lights of New York City scattered themselves beneath us like grains of golden Stardust, tracing patterns strange and fantastic, set with the jewelled brilliancy of ruby, emerald and topaz electric signs…”

Despite tranquil images of the giant silver airship cutting cleanly through the clouds, Lady Hay’s journey was not all smooth sailing.

The British born correspondent moved stateside after becoming a widow in her early 30’s. She gained the title of Lady at the age of 25 when she married Sir Robert Drummond, a man nearly 50 years her senior.  Her elderly husband died six years later, leaving Lady Hay free to pursue a series of extraordinary adventures.

Lady Hay had only recently ended a long running affair with her travelling companion and fellow correspondent, Karl H. Von Wiegand.

Farewell the part drama, part documentary based around the Graf Zeppelin’s 21 day world tour makes much of their tense relationship aboard the airship.

Excerpts from Lady Hay’s diary and letters during the voyage suggest her anxiety at spending almost a month in such close quarters with an ex-lover who had just decided to return to his mentally unstable wife.

Whatever she may have felt behind the closed door of her private cabin, Lady Hay made for a cool and collected observer aboard the zeppelin.

TIME described her exploits, exploring the steel skeleton of the massive airship as it sailed through the sky.

“Lady Drummond Hay, in knickers and leather flying coat, “clambered squirrel-like” (Von Wiegand description) along the girders of the ship’s hull. She carried a Boston Bull pup, who was cold and, she decided, lonesome. Sir Hubert Wilkins clambered with her. Her cloth cat mascot remained in her cabin.”

Lady Hay’s airborne trip around world was only the first of her adventures. Her coverage of the zeppelin’s flight cemented her reputation as a correspondent.  Over the following decade she travelled the world, reporting from war zones in Ethiopia and China.

Karl Von Wiegand remained her steadfast friend and they continued to travel and report together.

During World War Two they were both interned together in Japanese Camp in Manilla.  Though she was released in 1945 Lady Hay’s health had deteriorated during her internment. She died of a heart attack during her stay in the Lexington Hotel in Manhattan on February 25, 1946.

Lady Grace Drummond Hay 1895-1946

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Taking to the skies

Where are all the women?  This is a little question that hangs in the back of my mind when I walk down the streets and see statues, wonderful, proud, formidable statues like this one…

and this one.

even this one…

Okay, so there are some statues of women…

though they seem to be of the generic, lovely-but-nameless variety.  What I would like to see and I’m sure not alone in this is a statue to specific woman, a heroine, one of our audacious ancestors. Whenever I raise this complaint though I’m usually felled by one question, who are these audacious women?

The sad truth is I-and I’m sure I’m not alone in this either- don’t know all that much of my audacious ancestors.  Who are these women whose grit and wit allowed them to defy the limitations of their own time and place?  Whose hunger for adventure made it that little bit easier for the generations who came after.

So that, in short, is the purpose of the blog.  To uncover and remember just some of the women who refused limitations and whose audacity has stood the test of time.

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