While we’re waiting for Tim Peake to blast off to the International Space Station (ISS) to begin his Principia mission, I thought it might be fun to have a look at the first Briton in space – Helen Sharman, who was also the first woman to visit the Mir space station, in 1991.

Tim Peake will be the first Briton to visit the ISS, and will be encouraging school children across the UK to become astrobiologists, having teamed up with the RHS for a Rocket Science project looking at what happens to seeds (rocket [US: argulua]) exposed to space conditons.

Tim Peake is an official British astronaut, trained by ESA and sponsored by the British government. Helen Sharman took part in a commercial partnership with the Russian space agency, which unfortunately wasn’t very successful – she was the only Briton to fly up under the scheme.

Soyuz TM-12 Juno patch
“Soyuz TM-12 patch” by Soviet space program – http://www.spacefacts.de/mission/english/soyuz-tm12.htm. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Soyuz_TM-12_patch.png#/media/File:Soyuz_TM-12_patch.png

The mission was called Juno, and since it hadn’t been properly funded by British commercial interests, Sharman got a bit short-changed in the science experiment department and mostly helped with Soviet experiments rather than having her own set (unlike Tim Peake, who has a range of activities tailored to him, including running a space marathon!). Of course, astronauts and cosmonauts are pretty much lab rats themselves, as one of the most important areas of research is how space affects the human body.

The Soviet space programme is nowhere near as well-documented as NASA’s, but according to David M. Harland, in The Mir Space Station: A Precursor to Space Colonization:

As the first woman to visit Mir, she was presented with a tiny bonsai tree on arrival.

Which is nice 🙂 He also says that:

Several biological experiments were carried out, including Vazon to cultivate ginseng, onion and chlorella. Vita to study the growth of cells producing luciferase (a biologically active albumen), and Seeds, which simply required that a bag of tomato seeds be left in the airlock during the handover so that genetic irregularities resulting from their exposure to ambient radiation could be studied when they were planted on their return to Earth.

Update: Although the original plan was for Project Juno to blast tomato seeds into space, Helen Sharman actually took pansy seeds with her to Mir. Read more about the Project Juno pansy seeds.

So there’s a link there to Principia, with seeds exposed to space conditions. NASA has exposed tomato seeds to space conditions, as part of the Tomatosphere programme – they have been part of the school science curriculum across North America for the last 13 years!

So far that’s almost all I have on the first Briton in space and her gardening activities 🙂 According to an interview she gave, Sharman grew potato roots to study the growth of roots in space, and an article from BT says that she also observed seed growth in space, which does at least show that space gardening has been on our radar for quite some time.

More as I find it, but if you find more clues as to what Helen Sharman’s ‘agricultural experiments’ in space were, feel free to leave them in the comments!

The Guardian has an interesting round-up of the British astronauts that went into orbit before Tim Peake, all of whom (apart from Helen Sharman) were US citizens when they did so.