Helen Sharman: “I realised that we were basically the same people, we just wanted to be needed, be useful and wanted the best for our families.” In this inspiring event, Anna McNamara, Group Chief Operation Officer at Tokio Marine Kiln spoke to first British Astronaut, Helen Sharman about her extraordinary journey to space. Helen discussed the importance of finding common ground and building life-long relationships with a large international team as well as battling loneliness and isolation.
“You can achieve anything you put your mind to and you know what, girls can do it too,” were some of the opening remarks from Anna McNamara, Group Chief Operation Officer at Tokio Marine Kiln as she listed off a wealth of accolades and introduced speaker, Helen Sharman.
Helen described how, as a young girl growing up in the 1960s and 70s, a career as an astronaut felt so out of reach, she didn’t even consider it. That changed the day she heard a radio advert to become an astronaut – no experience required.
Helen understood that if she didn’t put herself forward no one would. Her leap of faith was rewarded when she was accepted as an astronaut for a Russia funded space programme.
It was in Russia, an environment so different to home, where Helen experienced her first sense of isolation. Not used the regimented life of a Russian military base and with funding starting to be cut from her mission, Helen described how she entered the darkest period of her life. It was only when she started to realise the similarities amongst those around her that she felt comfortable voicing her concerns. This led to her finding common ground with the people she was spending time with on the base, a skill that would help her in space.
After being selected for the mission, Helen started to further understand the benefits of working as an international team. Regardless of backgrounds, they worked as a trusted team, helping each other where they could and working with one common goal.
In space the sense of isolation remained. She reflected on how her experience in space had similarities to what many around the world experienced during lockdown. Yet there was a major difference: Helen was prepared for it.
Communication was vital, she explained. Speaking to friends and family who would visit mission control became a lifeline. Hearing about the everyday life of people back on earth provided her with a different perspective and was essential to her mental health.
Helen ended with some advice to others suffering with feelings of isolation and loneliness. She highlighted the importance of structure but also the value of downtime, which allows us to take back some control in a time where it feels like we have little.