Britain’s first astronaut, Dr Helen Sharman, visited Swindon’s Great Western Academy to officially open the school’s 6th Form and gave an inspirational talk to the whole school.
Dr Sharman, who has one of the school’s houses named after her, gave an insight into her unorthodox journey that led her to travel aboard the Soyuz TM-12 spacecraft and live aboard the Russian Mir space station in May 1991.
She explained: “When I was at school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I certainly never thought that I could become an astronaut, that was something that other people did.
Because I was undecided, I decided to focus on the sciences as I thought that it would give me a wide range of opportunities in the future. And then I decided to study chemistry at university, but it could have been any of the sciences. However, the more I learned about chemistry, the more I enjoyed the subject.”
Her first jobs, with an electronics firm and subsequently with Mars confectionary were hardly the normal career trajectory for an astronaut.
But her journey into space began when she heard an advert on the radio in 1989, asking for applicants to put themselves forward to be part of a new space mission.
“I knew that I had all the skills that they were looking for but I did doubt that I would be in with a chance. Astronauts are all big strong military types, test pilots and such like. But then I thought that no-one else is going to put me forward so I just went ahead with the application. And I was amazed to have been chosen.”
Dr Sharman was selected from a field of 13,000 to take part in Project Juno, a collaboration between the Soviet Union and private British companies. After spending 18-months intensively training at Russia’s Star City, Dr Sharman, then aged 27, headed for space in May 1991 - becoming Britain’s first astronaut.
Speaking afterwards, she said: “It’s always a great opportunity to encourage young people to work hard at their studies and never to write themselves off. There are so many opportunities out there. It’s important that young people develop that perseverance when things get tough and enjoy their studies along the way. I’m honoured to have been invited to talk to the children here today.”