Brit Tim Peake is seventh astronaut born in the UK

Major Tim Peake is currently in quarantine as he prepares for launch on Tuesday to the International Space Station as UK’s first official astronaut. During six months in orbit for the European Space Agency, the former Army test pilot from Chichester, West Sussex, will run the London Marathon on a treadmill.

Sharman and Garriott
Astronauts Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott pictured with the writer, centre.

But while space fans across the country will be cheering Tim on, many will be surprised to learn that the UK has already produced SIX astronauts, with the first making her flight nearly a quarter of a century ago! These are the names of the previous pioneering astronauts born on UK soil.

1. Helen Sharman

Britain’s first astronaut was Helen Sharman, a food scientist who had helped create the Mars ice cream bar.

She won a ride, at the age of 27, to the Soviet Union’s Mir space station, in a contest organised by a private consortium that drew 13,000 applications.

Helen was replying to an advertisement she heard on her car radio: “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary!” The consortium organising the trip was annoyed that the UK Government refused to support a manned spaceflight programme at the time and so sought sponsorship from companies including Interflora.

Sharman’s mission, dubbed Project Juno, nearly did not happen because the consortium failed to come up with the £7.5 million bill for the flight. But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to cover the rather large shortfall.

After 18 months of tough training in Moscow, Sharman blasted off aboard a Soyuz rocket, with two Russian crewmen, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on May 18, 1991. During eight days in space, she carried out experiments suggested by schoolkids including medical tests and growing pansies in orbit. Sharman, from Sheffield, parachuted back to Earth in the space capsule on May 26.

Now 52, she keeps a low profile while working as operations manager for the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London.

2. Michael Foale

Michael Foale, 58, was born in Louth, Lincolnshire, and grew up and was educated in England, But he had to take joint US nationality to achieve his dream of flying in space.

He became one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts, having flown on no fewer than six missions between 1992 and 2003. His daring experiences included spacewalks, surviving a life-threatening collision, and helping repair the Hubble telescope.

Michael Foale
Official astronaut portrait of Michael C. Foale. Image credit: Robert Markowitz/NASA

Foale, who went to the private King’s School Canterbury, followed by Queens’ College, Cambridge, first flew on the space shuttle Atlantis from March to April, 1992, to study the atmosphere and solar radiation.

His next mission, in April 1993, was a flight aboard another shuttle, Discovery, to put two satellites in space. In February 1995, he was again aboard Discovery to rendezvous with the Soviet Mir space station. During the mission, Foale made his first spacewalk.

His next flight was to begin a mission lasting more than five months in orbit. Foale blasted off on the shuttle Atlantis in May 1997 to join a Russian crew aboard Mir. It was a dramatic stay. On June 25, the space station was rammed by a Progress cargo ship that was attempting to dock, badly damaging a laboratory and a solar panel. Foale later said he feared he would die as air began to escape the orbiting workshop and it went into a spin.

Having corrected the roll, he made a six-hour spacewalk with Russian colleague Anatoli Soloviev to inspect the damage. Foale returned to Earth on October 6 after his eventful 145 days away.

In late December 1999, Foale flew once again on the shuttle Discovery on a daring mission to repair the Hubble telescope by installing a new computer and guidance system during a spacewalk lasting more than eight hours.

Foale, who is married with two children, made his final trip into space in October 2003 on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station where he stayed six months and commanded the orbiting outpost.

On his return to Earth in April 2004, Foale had clocked up a total of more than 374 days in space, including nearly 23 hours of spacewalks. He retired from NASA in 2013 to help develop environmentally friendly aviation by designing an electric aircraft. Page 2 >>

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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