The day my job was ‘astronaut support’

I’m a quiet, considered kind of person, I’m a writer, I like to take my time and think about everything I say. I’m not afraid of fast-paced: I can meet a deadline and crank out a story, but I’m not a phone-talker, you know?

This week, however, I found myself way out of my comfort zone.

I joined Imperial College London, one of the UK’s top universities, as a press officer in September. I am the officer for the Faculty of Natural Sciences, which includes physics, maths, life sciences and chemistry. Around the same time I joined, the chemistry department also gained a new employee.

Her name was Helen. She was 52, with short cropped reddish hair and a mole on her left cheek, perched on sloped bones that shone when she smiled. Helen was a chemist at Mars confectionery at one time, and helped develop the Mars ice cream, which already made her a hero in my estimation.

But Helen was something else. She was also the first Briton in space. Helen Sharman visited the Mir space station in 1991, blasting off on a Soyuz rocket and spending 8 days in space, doing science and looking out the window at the colours of the Earth, “more vivid than in any photograph”.

All of which I got to interview her about. Awesome, I thought, how cool that I get to meet such an incredible person, and such as nice, down-to-Earth person too, if you’ll excuse the pun. But my job is more than writing, after all – I have to answer media requests from journalists who want to talk to our experts – which now included Helen.

In the intervening 24 years since Helen’s space mission, no other Brit had gone into space with the union flag on their arm. Then, this week, Tim Peake blasted off and successfully docked with the ISS, becoming officially the second Brit in space. And Helen, well, she got a lot of media requests.

Helen-Helen-bigscreen
Helen on the big screen at the Science Museum

I spent the whole day with her at the Science Museum, where the activity was intense – there were big screens, 3,000 school children for the launch, and a live broadcast from Stargazing Live, which Helen appeared on.

As the day of the launch crept closer, the calls for Helen grew and grew. The day before, I was inundated, and spent the entire day fielding calls, and it was difficult for me. I wanted to please everyone, but there was no way to do everything and to make the best use of Helen’s time, as well as making sure she didn’t completely burn out. It was my responsibility to make everything work.

So I learned an important lesson: how to say no. Various limbs of the BBC were twisting my arm to push Helen’s morning earlier and earlier to fit them in, and in the end I had to say no. I scheduled in a lot of interviews, but during the day people kept calling, and it got easier to say no.

I said no to Newsnight who sauntered into the Science Museum in the afternoon and tapped me on the shoulder looking for some time (by that time Helen said she just couldn’t answer the kind of questions they would be asking). I told an outright lie to another journalist who called me, telling them Helen was in make-up at Stargazing Live and would be locked down with them in rehearsals for the next couple of hours. In fact, she was sitting next to me taking a well-deserved break and sipping from a bottle of water. When I hung up, she said to me: “Nicely done”.

The truth was, she needed me to be the bad guy. It would have been physically impossible for her to do all the interviews requested of her. When Tim Peake comes back from space, he’ll have the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency all helping him handle media requests. Helen didn’t fly with the ESA, and the UKSA didn’t even exist in 1991. So all she had was me.

I don’t mean that to sound big-headed, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. The truth is, that even though I spent portions of my day sitting very near Chris Hadfield willing myself to shake his hand, and even though I finally did get the courage to jump up and grab a photo with Brian Cox, it’s Helen who’s my hero.

I spent more than 12 hours with her this Tuesday, but I still sign off all my emails to her with ‘All the best’ or ‘Many thanks’ instead of a generic ‘Cheers’ or ‘Thanks’ or simply my name. In all those hours, as I watched countless people snag a selfie or ask for an autograph, I decided it would just feel too strange to ask her for these things myself. Part of me has normalised being with her, and I can just chat about the schedule or what its like in space or car insurance. But there’s a part of me that will always see her as a source of unassuming awe.

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