Meet five British space heroes

Josh Barker, Planetarium Coordinator at the National Space Centre, discusses some of the most important and influential figures in Britain’s ever-expanding national space story.

Monday, November 26, 2018,
By Mark Bailey
Astronaut Tim Peake during his spacewalk. "Today’s exhilarating spacewalk will be etched in my memory forever ...
Astronaut Tim Peake during his spacewalk. "Today’s exhilarating spacewalk will be etched in my memory forever – quite an incredible feeling!" he said.
Photograph by ESA/NASA

1. Dr Helen Sharman

The chemist from Sheffield became the first British person in space (and the first woman to visit the Soviet-operated Mir space station) in May 1991, aged just 27. Sharman spent seven days, 21 hours and 13 minutes in space, primarily conducting biological and agricultural experiments. “The fascinating thing is that Helen never intended to be an astronaut,” explains Barker.

Helen Sharman, the first British person in space.
Photograph by ESA

“She started out as a chemist and famously invented Mars-flavoured ice cream. But she heard a radio advertisement for Project Juno (a private mission to put a British astronaut in space) and beat off 13,000 people for the role. Her scientific and language skills made her ideal for the task. She proved to everyone that this wasn’t an exclusive club - if you have the knowledge and the drive, you can do it.”

Sharman's pioneering success paved the way for future British astronauts such as Michael Foale and Tim Peake.

Colin Pillinger (1943–2014) was principal investigator for Beagle-2 and will be remembered for his enthusiasm for Mars exploration.
Photograph by ESA

2. Professor Colin Pillinger

The planetary scientist from Gloucestershire began his career at NASA, where he analysed the first Moon rocks brought back to Earth, but he is best known as the principle investigator and inspiration behind the Beagle 2 lander deployed on the Mars Express mission of 2003. This compact 33kg lander, equipped with a robotic arm to acquire soil and rock in the search for life on Mars, was the first British space probe to reach another planet.

“It was one of the most innovative landers ever built,” insists Barker.

Beagle 2 landed but some of its solar panels failed to deploy, meaning it lost contact with Earth. However, the project yielded immense public interest and global respect which galvanised the British space industry. Pillinger also spent 35 years teaching the next generation of space scientists at the Open University before he died, aged 70, in 2014.

“So many people in the modern UK space industry say they went to his lectures and were inspired by him,” says Barker.


3. Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

As a graduate student at Cambridge in 1967, the astrophysicist from Lurgan, Northern Ireland, made the game-changing discovery of pulsars. The rapidly spinning remains of dying stars emit radio waves that sweep around space like beams from a cosmic lighthouse. These waves appear to ‘pulse’ as they rotate and intermittently face the Earth.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, photographed in 1967, made the game-changing discovery of pulsars. She is still championing science today.
Photograph by Roger W Haworth

“Pulsars are incredibly useful because their rhythm is so stable - more accurate than atomic clocks in terms of predictability – so they are a fantastic benchmark for measuring distances and locations in the solar system,” explains Barker. “Her discovery is helping us to create a map of the universe.”

It was considered one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the century, but it was her supervisor Antony Hewish who controversially received the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics. In 2018, Bell Burnell was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics but gave away the £2.3m prize money to help under-represented students.

“She continues to champion the idea of science for everyone,” says Barker.

Tim Peake goes through a final check of his space suit before a space walk.
Photograph by ESA/NASA

4. Tim Peake

In 2015 Tim Peake became the European Space Agency’s first British astronaut, spending 185 days, 22 hours and 11 minutes on board the International Space Station.

“To become an ESA astronaut involves an incredibly big selection process – covering everything from fitness and psychology to problem-solving skills – but Tim beat off 20,000 people around Europe to wear that Union flag in space which is incredibly inspiring,” says Barker.

“On his memorable spacewalk he relied on a suit a few millimetres thick to protect him from the hostile environment, where it is freezing cold, the low pressure can make the water in your body boil, and space debris can punch a hole in you. But his legacy will be the time he spent engaging with educational projects, such as Astro Pi (Raspberry Pi computers were programmed by children to conduct experiments in space), Rocket Science (inspiring school children to grow seeds which had travelled to the ISS) and Astro Academy Principia (a science education project), which will inspire generations to come.”

5. Dr Helen Walker

The British space scientist, who graduated  from St Andrews University, played key roles in projects such as Cluster, a European Space Agency mission to study the Earth’s magnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind, and the galaxy-exploring MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), which is due to fly on the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, in 2021. Walker worked in the Space Physics and Operations Division at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, where she made revolutionary contributions to astronomy and space physics.

“Tim Peake is in the public eye but Helen is on the other side, doing incredible things in the background, with vital research as well as mentoring young female scientists,” explains Barker. “Her work on Cluster really pushed the UK’s expertise in satellite technology. Space science is hugely international and the UK industry is now benefiting from the quality and precision that Helen championed.”

Walker died in 2017, aged 64.

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