Simply out of this world

28th August 1998 at 01:00

The launch was the easiest part. Unlike the Americans, the Russians don't go in for big build-ups, not even a countdown. The craft has just a small red LCD clock that ticks away the seconds.

When the engines fire, the noise inside is less than for the people watching. You are very insulated in the spacecraft and feel only a little vibration - nothing more than in a train or a heavily loaded aircraft taking off. The entire launch takes eight minutes, by which time the spacecraft is 200 miles above the Earth's surface.

You feel as if you are stationary - even though the spacecraft is travelling at 18,000 miles an hour. Just like on a train, once you reach a constant speed, unless you look out of the window you can forget you are going along.

When I did look out of the window it was amazing. I must have got some of the best holiday snaps ever. The view is spectacular and you never get tired of looking at it. We were going round the Earth 16 times every 24 hours and looking at it from a different angle each time.

The Earth looked like it does in pictures only more vibrant. The sea was a kind of azure blue, and looked as if it went deep into the earth. The clouds were so bright it hurt your eyes to look at them for too long. I expected the land to look quite green but most of it was a muddy grey colour.

The effects of people were obvious. I couldn't see the Great Wall of China because every time we passed over it was cloudy or at night. But in North America and Australia, the long straight roads running across desert areas were easily visible. You could see the wakes of ships - although you couldn't see the ships themselves - and the vapour trails of aircraft. In Europe and the Far East they were criss-crossing all over the place but the southern Hemisphere had very few.

When I go on holiday I love sampling foreign food; it can teach you a lot about a country. But if you had paid for the food I ate, you would have sent it back. It was so bland - tinned fish, black bread, tubes of cream cheese and dried cabbage soup. I did manage to smuggle in an orange, though.

A lot of work was crammed into those eight days - we were working 14 to 16 hours a day, and most of our spare time was spent looking out of the window. We had a guitar and a keyboard, as well as our own radio station, so we had contact with Earth.

I have few souvenirs of my trip - my space suit was auctioned off with a whole lot of Russian space hardware in the United States. But I still have my flight clothes - a kind of glorified tracksuit - my notes, and my hygiene pack.

Being weightless is a fantastic feeling. It's the most natural, relaxing sensation you can imagine. But when I got back to Earth I was incredibly wobbly - I practically had to teach myself how to walk again.

Helen Sharman, a former technologist with Mars Confectionery, became Britain's first astronaut in March 1991 when she joined the Anglo-Soviet Juno space project. She now works as a lecturer and broadcaster, and presents 'The Greats:Science and Inventors' on the BBC Learning Zone on September 7, 2-4am.

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