Helen Sharman's speech at the launch of YuriGagarin50
When Yuri Gagarin returned from space with his life intact, it was a remarkable achievement for all those who worked to ensure the successful completion of the first human space flight. It was also a glorious feather in the communist cap of the Soviet Union, whose people were rightly proud of their hero and began incorporating Yuri Gagarin into their cultural lives. But more than that, Yuri Gagarin was given the international crown for inspiration. Wherever he went, crowds of people thronged the streets to catch a glimpse of the person who embodied the abilities of fellow humans, the bravery of exploration, and the desire to discover what is new.
But go to any school in this country today and ask, ‘Who was the first person in space?’ and most likely, your answer will be ‘Buzz Aldrin’. Believe me, I have asked. I guess Buzz has been around a bit more recently than Neil Armstrong has. Yet people are still fascinated by space and they want to know how it is we can actually do what we do there, whether it’s how we live in weightless conditions, how gyroscopes work, how spacecraft are engineered or how we achieve circular orbits. Many people have said that my spaceflight inspired them to learn more science. At a recent teachers’ conference, a new teacher told me she was encouraged to take A level physics because I had gone into space. Now she’s inspiring ever more young people by her teaching of science.
People are curious, to know what it feels like to look out of the window to see the Earth, apparently floating freely, and then to look the other way, to the inky blackness of space, to see more and more stars appearing as your eyes become accustomed to the relative darkness, stars that seem to go on and on to... I don’t know where. Space gets people thinking. I remember my last night in orbit, being determined to stay awake by a window for as long as possible so as to imprint the ever-changing view on my memory, and realising that being away from Earth had reinforced what my Russian friends had inadvertently taught me on the ground before, that what is important in life, what really makes a difference, is not your salary, designer clothes or the latest electronic gadgets, but personal relationships and what people can do together. You know, this next year of celebrations would be a great opportunity to build stronger links with Russia.
Half a century of human space travel means much more than the science we have learned or the technology that has been developed, great though all that is. Space is grand, and being part of it makes people feel grand.