Browsing Tag

Helen Sharman

Astronauts, Inspirational women, Media

Rocket Women Featured In BBC’s Women With The Right Stuff

24 February, 2017
“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire - the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.” - Ellen Ochoa, NASA Astronaut & First Hispanic Woman In Space.

“What everyone in the astronaut corps shares in common is not gender or ethnic background, but motivation, perseverance, and desire – the desire to participate in a voyage of discovery.” – Ellen Ochoa, NASA Astronaut & First Hispanic Woman In Space.

In 1961 Wally Funk undertook secret tests to become an astronaut in the USA. A full twenty-two years before Sally Ride became the first American Woman in Space. She, along with 12 other female pilots, passed the tough rigorous physical tests to become an unofficial member of the ‘Mercury 13’ – the US women who could have gone into space over 20 years before the first American woman eventually did and even before Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963.

In the BBC’s Women With The Right Stuff, Wally Funk leads the listener through the story of the Mercury 13, a group of trailblazing and driven female pilots – some with more flying hours than John Glenn, the first American man in space that unfortunately never got the chance to fly to space, to the current NASA class chosen, being 50% female. The piece also features insights from trailblazing female astronauts including NASA’s Jessica Meir and Eileen Collins, the European Space Agency’s Samantha Cristoforetti and the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman. I’m excited to also be featured in the documentary among such fantastic company and represent Rocket Women. (You can find my interview at 9 minutes into the documentary and again at 30 and 40 minutes.)

Listen to the piece here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041kpmw

Additionally, here’s an insightful article by the documentary’s producer, Sue Nelson, about the documentary and working with Wally Funk: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-36824898

Inspiration, STEM TV & Movies

Seat 25: A Story of Determination

8 January, 2017
Seat 25 - Faye Banks, played by Madeline Cooke, imagining a journey to Mars [Seat 25]

Seat 25 – Faye Banks, played by Madeleine Cooke, imagining a journey to Mars [Seat 25]

“This is the story of an ordinary woman. But like all ordinary people, she’s capable of doing something extraordinary. This is Faye.” – Seat 25

What would you do if you won a seat on a mission to Mars? Would you leave everything behind to follow a life-long dream?

Seat 25 is set five years after NASA has found liquid water on Mars, all contact has been lost to the planet due to changes in the Martian atmosphere. However, entrepreneur Michael Macmillan is ‘preparing the first manned mission to the Red Planet, with a seat reserved for an ordinary person willing to do something extraordinary’.

And that person is Faye. Faye, a British woman in red with a seemingly normal life, “a life Faye has weaved for herself, one tiny web lost among billions of tiny webs all covering a vast planet.” Faye was inspired by space when she was young, especially by the first British astronaut Helen Sharman. Her love for space seemed to have been sparked by a teacher’s comment at school, “What was so remarkable about Helen Sharman, not only was she the first Briton in space, she was also a woman. How many of you girls will leave such an impression?”

“Mars is breathtaking. One hundred years ago astronomers were looking up at the canals, convinced that intelligent life was living there. And here we are now, looking up at that same planet convinced that any time now it’ll be us up there.” – Faye Banks, Seat 25

Throughout the film Seat 25 we follow Faye’s journey as she learns of her chance to go to Mars and subsequent agonising decisions of whether to leave her carefully constructed life behind. Less than 30% of speaking film roles are given to women in Hollywood, making it no surprise that lead space and sci-fi characters are predominantly male. Seat 25, directed by Nicholas Agnew, provides a refreshing take on the space genre, depicting a relatable and inspiring female character finally realising her dreams and taking a chance.

Seat 25 - What Happens When You Win A One Way Trip To Mars? [Seat 25]

Seat 25 – What Happens When You Win A One Way Trip To Mars? [Seat 25]

Rocket Women had the fortune of speaking to Madeleine Cooke, who plays Faye Banks in Seat 25 along with co-producing and co-writing the film.

What inspired you to write SEAT 25?

Nicholas who co-wrote the screenplay and myself both wanted to make a film about space and in particular the exploration of other planets and worlds and this is something that really interests us as people. The basic story for SEAT 25, the idea that someone could win a ticket to Mars was inspired by Mars One and their competition to Mars. I read an article in a newspaper about someone who was now in the ‘Mars 100′ and was hoping to be eventually chosen and win the competition. It made me wonder about the type of person would be willing to leave earth forever and start a new life on Mars? What would be there reasons? How might winning affect them? We have also more recently been greatly inspired by SpaceX and their plans for Mars. Elon Musk in particular was big inspiration for the character of ‘Macmillan’ in SEAT 25 and is a bit of a personal hero.

It was also extremely important to me that the central character be a women as women in both film and science are so terribly under represented. I would love to think that SEAT 25 and the character of ‘Faye’ captured young women with ambition and encouraged them to dream big.

What were your aims behind the project?

The idea of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances is something that really appeals to me as a screenwriter so it was very important to have a relatable person like ‘Faye’ as our central character. It was also extremely important to me that the central character be a women as women in both film and science are so terribly under represented. I would love to think that SEAT 25 and the character of ‘Faye’ captured young women with ambition and encouraged them to dream big.

I love the scene where Faye discovers her space toys and posters from when she was young. Were you interested in space or science when younger as your character Faye was?

You have found me out! Yes that part in particular had a lot of me in it and as a screenwriter I think you can’t help but put a lot of yourself in your characters to an extent. Certainly for me there is a lot of me in ‘Faye’. I have always been fascinated with space and as a little girl I dreamt about leaving earth and visiting other planets. The Apollo missions were also inspirations for SEAT 25 and greatly inspired me as a child.

You both co-wrote and co-produced Seat 25, impressively along with playing the lead role of Faye. How did you balance these during the film’s production?

I loved playing the character of ‘Faye’ and I was able to balance my other roles really due having an such a great team of people working with me and Nick on SEAT 25. There was only really 4 of us working on SEAT 25 but everyone was hard workers and were all very passionate about the project which was incredible.

The brilliant Seat 25 recently won awards for Best Feature Film and the Jury Prize at the Raw Science Film Festival in LA, the Best Feature Film at the Birmingham Film Festival and an award for the Best British Film at the London Film Awards in January 2017! Make sure you catch this movie at a film festival near you soon! (Seat 25 is due to open the Vault Film Festival on January 28th in London)

Astronauts, Inspirational women

Helen Sharman On Being The First British Astronaut

22 April, 2016

Britain's First Astronaut -Helen Sharman Landing After Her 8-Day Mission [Copyright: Alamy / The Guardian]

Britain’s First Astronaut -Helen Sharman Landing After Her 8-Day Mission [Copyright: Alamy / The Guardian]

Almost 25 years ago, Dr.Helen Sharman became the first British person in space. At the age of 6, I remember learning that Helen Sharman was the UK’s first astronaut and had travelled to space a mere 2 years before. That moment changed my life and inspired me to consider a career in space.

Helen’s story began as she replied to a November 1989 Project Juno radio advertisement calling for astronauts, “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary,” and worked hard to be selected from more than 13,000 applicants. After undergoing 18 months of strenuous training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City, Russia she launched into space on 18th May 1991. After her privately funded 8-day mission as a research cosmonaut, Helen Sharman became an overnight sensation in the UK. She spent the 1990s telling the world of her mission and spreading her inspirational story. But as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

A new interview with Helen Sharman by The Guardian helps to shed light as to why she led such an intensely private life. After shunning the limelight for over 15 years, Helen’s story has been brought back to the public’s imagination through Tim Peake’s mission, the first British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut.

She spent the 1990s telling the world of her mission and spreading her inspirational story. But as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared.

As her interview with The Guardian states, “I wanted my privacy back. I’m a scientist, but I found myself in interviews being asked where I bought my clothes. Irrelevant. And I always felt I had to be photo-ready. Fame was the downside of space.”

When British Major Tim Peake was assigned a flight to the International Space Station, she found the UK Space Agency apparently ‘writing her out of history’. In statements, Major Tim Peake was reported as the UK’s first official astronaut. Helen says, “I asked them: ‘What happened to me?” She questioned what ‘official’ even meant, reminding them that her mission was ‘part of the Soviet Union space programme’. “The British government didn’t fund it but it was still official.”

Discussing what she enjoyed most about her mission, “It wasn’t so much going to space as the training that appealed. Living in Russia, learning the language, doing advanced mechanics. It was a way out [of] the rat race.”

As the first British astronaut in 1991, Helen Sharman inspired a generation in the UK to look to the stars and follow their dreams, similarly to the hopeful impact of Tim Peake’s mission a quarter of a decade later. On being selected, she shrugs, “I can only surmise why me.” “I was physically fit, good in a team and not too excitable, which was important. You can’t have people losing it in space. I think it was just my normality.”

Read Helen Sharman’s feature with The Guardian here.

Inspiration, Science Spotlight

Inspiring The Next Generation During British Science Week

17 March, 2016

Britain's first astronaut, Helen Sharman, with High Tunstall College of Science students in Hartlepool, UK,  launching its STEM initiative. [Hartlepool Mail]

Britain’s first astronaut, Helen Sharman, with High Tunstall College of Science students in Hartlepool, UK, launching its STEM initiative. [Hartlepool Mail]

This one’s for the Brits.

British Science Week (11-20th March) is being celebrated around the UK this week, organised by the British Science Association. Fortunately, I’m in the UK at the moment and excited to be attending events, especially those focused on space. One popular event in particular, out of the thousands planned, is the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham, the ‘largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for young people in the UK’, through a combination of ‘exciting theatre shows, interactive workshops and exhibits, as well careers information from STEM professionals’. The event runs from 16-19 March 2016 and I’d highly recommend anyone, especially young people, with an interest in STEM to attend!

But why is it so important to inspire the next generation to consider science and engineering?

Well, looking to the future, there is a ‘massive skill requirement for engineering‘ upcoming over the next few years. According to a recent report released this month, one in five schoolchildren would have to become an engineer to fill that gap in the UK. With only 15% of UK engineering graduates being female and only 2% of engineering professionals, encouraging more girls to pursue engineering will help to fill this gap, ensuring that they make up 50% of engineering talent.

But we need more engineers and scientists as a whole. Which is why events such as British Science Week and organisations including Stemettes and STEMNET are so essential, and why Rocket Women exists. Inspiring the next generation to consider a degree in STEM isn’t just a nice idea, but a goal that we need to focus on to ensure the UK, and similarly other countries around the globe, have the talent to fill an increasing need for STEM skills in the future.

Update: An event that I couldn’t miss during British Science Week was the Scanning The Horizon: Space Travel Through The Ages event with TV presenter Dallas Campbell and BBC Horizon Editor Steve Crabtree. It was amazing to see footage from the Horizon’s space archives and I even got to do my first on-camera interview for the British Science Association!

Horizon's recent film about British astronaut Tim Peake's training

Horizon’s recent film about British astronaut Tim Peake’s training

Being interviewed for the British Science Assciation at the Scanning The Horizon event (with BBC's Dallas Campbell on the left)

Being interviewed for the British Science Association at the Scanning The Horizon event (with BBC’s Dallas Campbell on the left)

Astronauts, How To Be A Rocket Woman, Inspiration

Why The UK Needed A High Profile British Astronaut

15 December, 2015

As a child I was an avid reader and read every space book I could get my hands on. At the age of 6, I remember reading that Helen Sharman was the UK’s first astronaut and had travelled to space a mere 2 years before, in 1991. That moment changed my life. Rather than astronauts being primarily American NASA Shuttle crew that I saw on TV, or hearing stories of the Moon landing 20 years ago from adults around me, suddenly in the image in front of me was a woman in her 20s with short brown hair. A British woman with the Union Jack patch clearly visible on her left arm of her Sokol spacesuit. I had heard of Michael Foale, born in the UK becoming a US citizen to meet NASA Astronaut qualifications, but never of a British astronaut. I didn’t know it was possible. But in that moment looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Being a girl born at the end of the 80s in the UK I realised right then that maybe, just maybe, I could be an astronaut too. That changed something inside me. Here was a woman in front of me born in Sheffield, who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for UK astronauts, beat 13,000 applicants and had recently gone to space.

Helen Sharman recently with her Sokol spacesuit

Helen Sharman recently with her Sokol spacesuit

Even at the age of 6, I didn’t understand why nobody around me was talking about her mission. She had launched only a couple of years ago when I was 3 but I had never heard about it at school or on TV. I didn’t understand why this woman wasn’t treated like a star and talked about everywhere, possibly naively. I managed to find every scrap of information I could find about her. In an age before the internet I went to library after library (shuttled by my parents), reading about her story in small paragraphs as part of a larger book on space. What she was to me, even though I didn’t know it yet, was a role model. She had showed me that my dreams were possible. Even when I had wonderful supportive parents and teachers encouraging my interests, space went from an interest over the next few years to a career. Knowing that there had been a British astronaut, female at that, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger. Even if the career councillor at school wanted me to become a dentist, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human spaceflight. And eventually I did, even working with the next British ESA astronaut Tim Peake at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany along with supporting astronauts on the ISS. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a female British astronaut and maybe there could be again. Here was a British woman involved in human spaceflight and that had flown to space. It was possible.

The importance of role models at a young age is immeasurable. Which is why I’m so excited for Tim Peake’s flight and the fact that Helen Sharman is finally being talked about 24 years on from her mission. The outreach for Tim’s Principia mission by the UK Space Agency has been amazing and has the highest budget of any ESA astronaut mission. Tim and his Principia mission will hopefully go on to inspire the next generation to reach for the stars and follow their dreams in space, knowing that it is indeed possible.

Fulfilling a lifelong dream at the age of 23. Working with Astronaut Tim Peake at the European Space Agency's (ESA) European Astronaut Centre (EAC).

Fulfilling a lifelong dream at the age of 23. Working with Astronaut Tim Peake at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Astronaut Centre (EAC).

Today the first British European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Tim Peake launched to the ISS with London’s Science Museum hosting 2000 jubilant children following his every move. Simply fantastic. In less than 5 years the UK has gone from not contributing to Human Spaceflight through ESA, to having a high profile British astronaut launch to the ISS supported by a sustainable National Space Strategy, a first for the UK. That’s something to be proud about. Tim’s carrying a whole nation’s dreams with him but most importantly inspiring thousands of children to consider a career in space and follow in his footsteps. I wonder how many children watched the launch today and decided that they wanted to be the next Tim Peake?

A smiling Tim Peake, First British ESA Astronaut, gives a thumbs up launching to the ISS on 15th December 2015

A smiling Tim Peake, First British ESA Astronaut, gives a thumbs up launching to the ISS on 15th December 2015

Astronauts, Inspirational women

A Story Of A Spacesuit – Helen Sharman, First British Astronaut

13 December, 2015

In 24 hours Major Tim Peake will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) on 15th December 2015, becoming the first European Space Agency (ESA) British astronaut. His 6-month mission Principia will inspire a new generation to reach for the stars and follow their dreams. However 24 years ago the first British astronaut, a female chemist called Helen Sharman, launched to the MIR space station. Her privately funded 8-day mission as a research cosmonaut made her the first Briton in space. Helen’s story began as she replied to a November 1989 Project Juno radio advertisement calling for astronauts and worked hard to be selected from more than 13,000 applicants. After undergoing 18 months of strenuous training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre at Star City, Russia she launched into space on 18th May 1991.

In this new video by the Royal Institution Helen Sharman takes us through the Sokol spacesuit she entrusted with her life when she became the first British astronaut and woman in space. Tim Peake will wear a similar Sokol suit during the launch and re-entry phases of his mission whilst in the Soyuz spacecraft.

British Astronaut Helen Sharman describing her Sokol spacesuit to presenter Dallas Campbell [Copyright: Royal Institution]

British Astronaut Helen Sharman describing her Sokol spacesuit to presenter Dallas Campbell