Browsing Tag


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

Science Spotlight

Science Spotlight – 50 Years of Spacewalking

3 June, 2015

NASA Astronaut Edward H. White Conducting the First US EVA on June 3, 1965

50 years ago on this day, Edward White stepped out of his Gemini spacecraft into the vacuum of space and made history, becoming the first spacewalking American astronaut. Spacewalks are inherently risky endeavours summed up by NASA Astronaut Butch Wilmore as simply “being in the vacuum of space and attached by a little metal tether”, all the while orbiting the Earth at 17,100 mph exposed to Micrometeroid and Orbital Debris (MMOD). Ed White’s spacewalk,  taking place 77 days after the first EVA (Extravehicular Activity) by Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov, could possibly be described as one of the riskiest of all and set the precedent for the future of the space program. A spacewalk is performed outside the protective environment of a space habitat or vehicle. To survive the vacuum environment, the human body needs to be in a pressurised enclosure, which is precisely what an EVA suit (spacesuit) is, alongside a life support system. It’s essentially an anthropomorphic, mini spacecraft with the complexity of a large spacecraft. The design of an EVA suit may seem simple at first sight since they are covered with a fabric thermal micrometeoroid garment, but it is in fact one of the most complex technological developments to carry out.

Future spacesuit designers need to provide crew members with a comfortable interior pressure, sufficient flexibility, mobility and microclimate for a range of EVA activities, whilst minimising the risk of suit decompression. In case of an emergency, the suit needs to be able to be worn and removed with ease and rapidly whilst protecting the crewmember from micrometeoroid penetration or puncture. As NASA says when it comes to spacesuits, “understanding the past and learning from mistakes is the only way to progress”. Once on the surface, the environmental challenges faced on Mars and near-earth asteroid surfaces along with potential EVA durations likely exceeding the cumulative length of every Apollo EVA and would require the design of a versatile and rugged suit.

NASA’s Apollo suits were the first to have plaster hand casts and full body casts created for the crewmembers, improving suit fit. Astronauts today have custom-made EVA gloves only, developed using laser scanning, hand casting, 3D computer modelling, stereo-lithography, laser cutting and CNC machining. To allow mobility, the Apollo suit design ensured that the astronaut could easily translate and flex his fingers even with the tendency of its internal pressure to make it a rigid balloon. This still required significant effort and forearm fatigue due to the glove pressure limited productivity. The Apollo suit was redesigned for the Apollo 15-17 missions to allow the number of lunar surface EVA periods to increase to three and an extension of each EVA to eight hours. Improvements were made in the Apollo suit gloves introducing more bonded and moulded components with an increase in the diameter of the glove wrist disconnect to provide greater wrist comfort and making them easier to wear.  With the lunar rover vehicle (LRV) used for the first time during Apollo 15, the spacesuit needed additional waist mobility and improvements to the integrated micrometeoroid garment (ITMG) in its abrasion resistance against the effects of lunar dust.


Astronaut Jack Schmitt conducting EVA activities at the Apollo 17 landing site. Note the heavily dust covered suit especially near the boots and lower arms. [NASA, 2002]

Lunar dust proved to be a significant problem for the Apollo missions due to it’s highly abrasive nature and caused problems including coating the suits causing seal failures, abrasion and irritation when inhaled by the crew. Lunar dust compromised the ability of the astronauts to re-seal their suits after an EVA, with Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad’s suit after his EVA developing a leak rate of 0.25 psi/min, just below the safety limit of 0.30 psi/min. A 3rd EVA would likely not have been possible if needed. The environmental lunar sample seals also failed resulting in sample contamination. The lunar dust was so abrasive that the astronauts’ suits were worn through the outer layer and into the Mylar multi-layer insulation above the boot. Dust scratched the Apollo 16 suits’ gauge dials to leave them unreadable. The abrasive effect of lunar dust on spacesuit and seals is a major problem for long-duration missions where habitat airlocks or spacesuits will be sealed on a regular basis and needs to be taken into account during future suit design.
ISS shuttle.png

The enhanced EVA suit (left) currently used on the International Space Station (ISS) was developed with the requirement that the number of EVAs required for ISS construction would be greater than all of the previous spacewalks conducted by all of the world’s space programmes. The financial constraints relating to the U.S.’s contribution to the ISS program meant that the Shuttle EMU was upgraded rather than developing a new concept. The new enhanced suit provided easier on-orbit sizing and improved custom glove fitting with a heating system.

Lessons are still being learnt to this day, with a major issue discovered within the suits recently. During an EVA on 16th July 2013, ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano felt water inside his helmet on the back of his head. The amount of water in the helmet increased migrated from the back of his head onto his face. The EVA was terminated early and the crew re-entered the ISS allowing the suit to be removed. Luca also reported impaired visibility and had to breathe with water covering his eyes, nose, and ears. He also had audio communication issues because of the water and had to rely on manually feeling his safety tether’s cable, attaching him to the ISS structure, for pathway directions back to the airlock rather than relying on his sight. It’s the closest call to this date during an ISS EVA with the amount of water in the helmet estimated to be 1-1.5 litres. This particular issue had been caused by a failure of the fan/pump/separator component within the spacesuit, which was subsequently replaced. Astronauts also now install a Helmet Absorption Pad (HAP) inside their helmets to absorb potential water that may enter their helmet. Along with regular glove inspections during an EVA, astronauts will also carry out HAP inspections to feel whether the HAP is “squishy” (A NASA technical term) indicating that it may be holding 200 milliliters of water at the minimum. Up to 600 to 800mL of water can be held by the pad, giving the crew time to return to the safety of the airlock. Water Line Vent Tubes or snorkels have also been installed inside the suit using velcro allowing the crew to breathe from the drier Torso Section of the suit in case of a serious mishap .

EVA30 water.png

Water visible in NASA Astronaut Terry Virts’ helmet post his 25th February spacewalk [NASA TV Screenshot]

In February this year, astronaut Terry Virts also reported water in his helmet when back in the ISS airlock post-EVA, during repressurization caused by sublimator water carryover. Water present in the suit’s sublimator cooling component can condense as the suit is repressurized after a spacewalk. This caused a small amount of water to push into Virts’ helmet however this is now a known and NASA accepted EVA risk. Tackling these issues related to EVA suit design including the effect of lunar dust and glove design will be a challenge, but is currently being investigated.

EVA is a proven capability for meeting mission objectives and is critical to the ISS, with a current total of 1159 hours 8 minutes of EVA having been completed in ISS maintenance and assembly. The lessons learned over the last 50 years of spacewalking are essential to develop a future EVA suit for long-duration human exploration missions including a mission to Mars, needing to withstand the deep-space and Martian environments.


I Can Be An Astronaut Too

26 March, 2015

I Can Be An Astronaut Too – By Priyanka Chatterjee []

“I can be an astronaut too” by Priyanka Chatterjee

“Careers in the sciences, such as space exploration and astrophysics, are male-dominated. There have been many scientific advances made by women in the past – however, young girls may not realize that they can want to be astronauts too. I wanted to inspire girls everywhere to pursue anything they want without the implication of gender roles. A child looking at an astronaut helmet in a museum can invoke a world of wonder and majesty, and that is what I tired to convey.”

I love this image. I hope it inspires girls to achieve their dreams and reach for the stars.