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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

UK cosmonaut in space, on a Soviet rocket in 1991
Helen Womack

A down-to-earth girl from Mars made headlines in May 1991 by becoming the first English cosmonaut to join the Soviet crew on the orbiting space station, Mir. I took a break from all the political reporting that year to see Helen Sharman, then 27 and a chemist from Sheffield, blast off from the Baikonur launch pad in a tin can of a rocket, little changed since Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight 30 years earlier.

Helen had worked as a chocolate technologist for the confectionary company Mars—indeed, she’d helped to develop ice-cream Mars bars. So that gave the headline writers some scope when it came to playing with words. But from a journalist’s point of view, Helen was a maddening heroine. Before the lift-off, we tried all ways to get her to show some emotion but she was sternly downbeat about the adventure.

“I am not going into infinity,” she said in her flat Yorkshire accent. “I’m going into lower Earth orbit.”

She was speaking from behind a glass screen to eliminate the risk of infection but nothing, it seemed, could protect her from what she clearly considered to be our trivial questions. She’d had muesli for breakfast, she disclosed. Yes, she was taking a present from her father, a butterfly brooch, but no, she was not taking a mascot.

Interviewing her was hard work.

In search of a better story, I set off to look at Baikonur itself, which of course had been closed to foreigners in communist times. It was actually a tawdry little town called Leninsk, the real settlement of Baikonur being 620 miles to the east. Using such disinformation, the Soviet Union had tried to mask the location of its secret sites.

Perhaps more than any other town or city I had visited, Leninsk, on the steppes of Kazakhstan, opened my eyes to Soviet reality. I’d assumed the space city, at least, would be modern and well supplied but here too people queued for food and condensed milk was available only on production of a ration card.

The local Kazakhs complained that their territory was used for launches but no Kazakh had ever gone into space, a state of affairs that was to be rectified when Russia made new agreements with Kazakhstan.

Back at the launch pad, it was time for Helen’s departure. She was accompanied by experienced cosmonauts Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalyov. With a great roar and trailing a blinding flame, the Soyuz TM12 rocket sliced the air. Helen’s physicist father, John Sharman, seemed at first to be as cucumber-cool as his daughter. But after the lift-off, he admitted: “I don’t think I could go through that a second time.”

We hacks discovered there had been launch pad accidents at Leninsk in the past. But all the experts agreed the tried-and-tested TM-12 rocket was the guarantee of Helen’s safe return.

And of course she did come home again, a media star, in demand for appearances on chat shows. But I could only pity the breakfast presenters who would have to try and extract some emotion from this scientifically-minded girl.

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