Britain’s first space explorer is honoured by University of Leicester

Britain’s first astronaut has paid tribute to the University of Leicester’s world class space research.

Helen Sharman CMG OBE singled out the University’s out-of-this-world research after receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Science during a graduation ceremony, held at De Montfort Hall, in Leicester, today (Thursday 18 January).

Helen became the first Briton to blast off into space in 1991, where she spent eight days orbiting Earth in a Soyuz spacecraft and on board the Soviet Mir space station.

After being presented with her Honorary Doctorate, the 60 year-old Sheffielder was quick to recognise the University’s role in pushing forward the boundaries of space research.

The University has a proud space heritage which began in 1960, when Professor Ken Pounds founded the Space Research Group. The first Leicester-built instrument in space was launched aboard a Skylark rocket in 1961 and there has been at least one piece of Leicester-built equipment operating in space every year since 1967. Sixty years on, the University continues to collaborate with international space agencies and to develop Space Park Leicester, a world-leading space and Earth observation cluster.

Helen said: “I am truly delighted to be offered an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Leicester.  Leicester has a long history of world class space research, which was a driving force for the creation of the National Space Centre (NSC), with its amazing galleries, planetarium and education activities. As a Trustee in the 1990s, I became closely acquainted with the NSC from its early days and I continue to participate in a variety of activities there. Now Space Park Leicester is taking space research, industry collaborations and student education and training to another level. I look forward to discovering much more of space from the University of Leicester in the future.”

She also had the following words of advice for graduating students: “Across all professions, advances in science and technology are giving rise to new opportunities that previously we could only dream of. With your degrees from the University of Leicester, you are in a great position to make the most of what the world has to offer, to push forward your own boundaries and also the boundaries of what humans believe is possible. It’s an exciting time to be embarking on a career.”

President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, said: “I am delighted that we have honoured Dr Helen Sharman as an exemplar for our community. Her achievements are literally out of this world and her belief that people should make the best use of their lives to benefit the world chimes with our mission to create Citizens of Change. Her accomplishments provide a measure of the impact that an individual can have upon society and serve as an inspiration for us all. She is a wonderful ambassador for Leicester.”

Helen Sharman is a pioneer, a role model, a superb communicator and a world class inspirational speaker.

One of two Britons selected for astronaut training out of almost 13,000 applicants, Helen underwent a rigorous selection process, which focused on psychological and medical assessments, including tolerance to high acceleration and motion sickness, technical understanding and practical skills.

This was followed by 18 months of intensive training that included preparing for launch, feeling weightless, spacecraft operations, emergency situations, working in space and being part of a crew, as well as learning to speak Russian.

On board the Mir space station, her tasks included medical, agricultural and chemical experiments, materials testing, Earth observation work and operating an amateur radio link with British school students.

After her space flight, Helen chose to become a science communicator and speaker, winning prizes for radio and TV programmes and for her inspirational talks on STEM, leadership, teamwork and problem-solving. She often meets teachers who were inspired to study science after hearing her speak: her speech changed their lives, and now they pass on their passion and expertise to new generations of young scientists and engineers.

Helen added: “We should push forward, not only our individual boundaries, but also the boundaries of what humans believe is possible. People are the biggest limitations in our own lives.

“There’s a huge amount we can do, and we should make the best use of our lives for the benefit of the world.”

Helen received her BSc in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. She worked in research and development at GEC and Mars Confectionery before becoming an astronaut. Later, Helen managed operations at the National Physical Laboratory, at Kingston University London and at Imperial College London, where she now works part-time as the UK outreach ambassador.

Amongst her other activities, Helen hosts the Zero Pressure podcast, a relaxed conversation with people on the cutting edge of science and technology.

She is president of the IST, the professional body for the technical community, a Science Museum advisory board member, a Royal Osteoporosis Society ambassador and an active member of the Association of Space Explorers.

Helen was awarded the OBE in 1993, and in 2018 she was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for services to Science and Technology Educational Outreach.

In October 2020, Helen celebrated Space Week at the National Space Centre, Leicester, where her flight suit is one of the most popular exhibits.

Hill and mountain walking figure highly among Helen’s passions, as do listening to music and playing the piano. She is also interested in linguistics and has an MA from UCL in Central and South East European studies.