This week we're featuring the Sokol Spacesuit made for British astronaut, Helen Sharman, by Zvezda, an organisation created to develop aviation pressure suits and in-flight re-fuelling systems for the USSR's space research programme. Sharman, originally a 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, after responding to an advert she heard on her car radio which said, ‘Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary’. She was eventually selected from 13,000 applicants, her scientific and language skills making her the ideal candidate to represent the British Juno Mission. Having spent 18 months training in Star City before the launch, Sharman then spent seven days, 21 hours and 13 minutes in space, primarily conducting biological and agricultural experiments.
Her spacesuit was custom fitted for her by Zvezda, the company who had also made the spacesuit for Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. The Sokol suit itself was developed after three unsuited cosmonauts asphyxiated on the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971 when their descent module depressurised during the return to Earth. Every cosmonaut now wears one during launch and return from space. It keeps the wearer alive for a number of hours in the event of a cabin depressurisation. Each suit is tailor made to the individual cosmonaut and comprises an inner, airtight ‘bladder’ of rubberised plastic and an outer layer of nylon canvas. There are connecting rings on the lower abdomen for air (cooling) and oxygen supplies and a centrally positioned pressure adjustment valve control on the chest; the pressure gauge is on the left wrist. The helmet and boots are integral with the rest of the suit; the gloves are attached with anodized aluminium bayonet fixings. Today’s Sokol design is little changed from the original.
Having worn this suit for two hours on the ground to check its fit. Lying back, Sharman tried to read but her arms ached from holding the book for so long. She wore this suit both during the launch and during the space flight on board the SOYUZ-TM-12 and MIR spacecraft in May 1991. Despite the suit’s cooling systems she sweated 2 litres during the mission launch. Once she could remove the suit, she dried it thoroughly to ensure it would not go mouldy.
In the videos below, you can see footage from Sharman's mission to the MIR Spacestation, and her susequently discussing her spacesuit and training for space with television presenter Dallas Campbell. Both videos are courtesy of the Science Museum Group.
Music: "Wake Up" by Kai Engel. Images: Yuri on parade © Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library; Helen Sharman © State Organization Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center; Tereshkova © State Organization Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center; Leonov stamp – public domain; Helen Sharman and Leonov - © Science Museum. Video courtesy of the Science Museum.