In 1991 research chemist Helen Sharman became the first British person to leave planet Earth. She went on to spend eight days on board the space station Mir alongside a team of Soviet cosmonauts. And now, the pioneering astronaut has spoken about the experience and given her thoughts on extra-terrestrial life.
We’ll learn about Sharman a little later, but first let’s explore a bit more about humankind’s search for alien life. Indeed, ever since we first studied the stars, we have been asking ourselves the same question: are we alone in the universe? Hoping to find the answers, scientists began experimenting with ways to communicate with distant planets as far back as the 19th century. This research continues hundreds of years later, though it produces varying results.
In 1961 an astronomer named Frank Drake came up with an equation that is still used by scientists today. He claimed that by multiplying seven different factors together, researchers could predict the number of intelligent civilizations capable of communicating across space. However, many of these values – such as the amount of Earth-like planets in existence – are open to interpretation.
The Drake equation has actually been used to come up with a wide variety of numbers of civilizations over the years – ranging from billions to zero. To many, its main use is as little more than a theoretical tool. But if the upper estimates of intelligent life are true, how close are we to understanding these alien civilizations?
In 1976 NASA’s Viking Project became the first mission to successfully arrive on the surface of Mars. And while there, the landers recorded some startling information. According to an experiment, nutrients in the soil were being metabolized into methane – suggesting the presence of organic life.
Unfortunately, none of the Viking landers’ other experiments supported the aforementioned findings, and NASA eventually dismissed them. Nevertheless, there are some who believe that the 1976 mission really did find evidence of life on Mars. And 20 years later, more evidence emerged that appeared to support these claims.
In 1996 NASA researchers claimed to have identified nanobacteria on a meteorite that had originated from Mars. And six years later a team of Russian scientists announced that a type of microbe now found on Earth may have originated on the Red Planet. Then, in 2004 another group of scientists made a further revelation.
This time, three separate institutions revealed that they had discovered traces of methane on Mars. And although the gas could have been produced by geological activity, there is a high chance that its presence is the byproduct of an organic process. Currently, scientists plan to send equipment into space to test their theory. But the Red Planet isn’t the only potential source of alien life.
Just one year after the Viking missions landed on Mars, researchers at Ohio State University detected something known as the “Wow!” signal. This burst of radio activity is believed to have originated somewhere in the vicinity of the Sagittarius constellation. Furthermore, it continues to baffle researchers to this day. And in 1984 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was founded to search for and study any future transmissions from space.
In 2003 researchers from SETI trained a giant telescope on the sky in an attempt to track down the source of some 200 previously recorded signals. And while the majority of the transmissions had faded, there was one that remained – beaming out of what appeared to be an empty spot in space. According to many experts, it is the closest that humans have ever come to communicating with extra-terrestrial life.
Meanwhile, researchers have picked up other possible indicators of alien life on planets a little closer to home. In 2002 astrobiologists at the University of Texas suggested that microbes might account for chemical anomalies in the clouds above Venus. And the following year, researchers in Italy theorized that the sulphur present on Europa – a moon of Jupiter – could be evidence of organic activity.
In 2001 scientists also revisited the Drake equation – using new techniques to refine the factors first outlined 50 years prior. Decades later, they were able to more accurately estimate many of the elements used to make the calculation. And they eventually concluded that the number of potential alien civilizations capable of communicating with Earth was actually in the hundreds of thousands.
But as scientists have studied and debated the potential for life on other planets, others have taken a more hands-on approach to solving the mysteries of the universe. And since the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961, over 550 astronauts have journeyed to the stars, according to The Guardian.
Today, there are about half a dozen people on the International Space Station at any one time. But space was a far less populated place back in 1989 when Helen Sharman first began contemplating a change of career. And instead of the high-tech ISS, the much more basic Mir station – maintained by the Soviet Union – provided a home for astronauts away from planet Earth.
In Britain – where Sharman lived – there wasn’t even a space program to speak of. But with the Cold War drawing to a close, the powers that be were searching for ways to bolster the country’s relationship with the Soviet Union. And so, they hit upon the idea of Project Juno.
Essentially, Project Juno was Britain’s attempt to piggyback onto the success of the Soviet cosmonauts – booking a spot for a homegrown astronaut on their next mission. At the time, the authorities had hoped that this initiative would help to foster a connection between the two countries. Now, all they needed was a willing volunteer.
Sharman grew up in the English city of Sheffield and had been interested in science from a young age. And even though she’d been warned by a teacher that chemistry and physics classes were dominated by males, Sharman decided to pursue her passion. Ultimately, she graduated from Birkbeck College in London and found a job as a research chemist in Slough.
After two years working for the confectionery company Mars Wrigley, Sharman happened to hear a radio advertisement seeking participants for Project Juno. It announced, “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” Intrigued, the chemist joined 13,000 individuals all keen to become the first British person in space.
Slowly, the team behind Project Juno filtered through the applicants and eventually came up with a shortlist of 150 candidates – including Sharman. Although she did not have any previous experience, her foreign language skills, scientific education and personal fitness level helped propel her to the top of the list.
After an intense period of assessments and tests, the shortlist for Project Juno was whittled down to just two candidates. And to her surprise, Sharman was one of them. Competing against her for the spot was Major Tim Mace – a helicopter pilot with a background in aeronautical engineering. Together, they then traveled to Russia to begin training.
For 18 months the two hopefuls trained for the mission, and neither of them knew which one would actually go into space. Eventually, a decision was made: Sharman would be the one to accompany the Russian cosmonauts to Mir. So, in May 1991 the then-27-year-old boarded a rocket in Kazakhstan and began her incredible journey.
For eight days Sharman lived and worked on Mir – conducting a number of experiments in space. As well as studying the effect of microgravity on crystals, she also carried out a number of biological tests. And when Sharman wasn’t immersed in scientific work, the Sheffield native used a radio to communicate with curious children back on Earth.
Today, conditions on the ISS are relatively luxurious; astronauts enjoy state-of-the-art communications technology and even gourmet food. But back then, life on Mir was far more basic. According to Sharman, meals consisted of Russian canned meat and soup, while it was common for power cuts to leave the entire station in the dark.
Before long, it was time for Sharman to return to Earth, where she found herself propelled into the spotlight as a symbol of space-age Britain. However, the fame was short-lived. Unwilling to live the life of a celebrity, the one-time astronaut withdrew from the blaze of publicity, and she chose instead to live a normal life.
Twenty-four years after Sharman’s visit to Mir, European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake embarked on a mission to the ISS. By that time, Project Juno had been all but forgotten, and many regarded him as the first official Briton in space. Meanwhile, his predecessor had began working as operations manager at Imperial College, London’s Department of Chemistry at that time.
Sharman has given a number of interviews detailing her time in space over the years. However, it was one particular conversation published in The Guardian in January 2020 that really thrust her into the limelight once more.
During the interview, Sharman discussed the notion of life on other planets from the perspective of an astronaut who has seen first-hand the enormity of space. And, shockingly, she confirmed that she was a staunch believer in the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations. In fact, she claimed that aliens might already be here.
“Aliens exist, there’s no two ways about it,” Sharman readily proclaimed. “There are so many billions of stars out there in the universe that there must be all sorts of different forms of life.” However, the former astronaut acknowledged that extra-terrestrial beings might look completely different to what we might expect.
“Will they be like you and me, made up of carbon and nitrogen? Maybe not,” Sharman continued. “It’s possible they’re here right now and we simply can’t see them.” On her website, however, she is quick to point out that she does not believe humanoid aliens are currently residing on Earth.
On a separate page dedicated to the topic of alien life, Sharman’s website goes on to detail the former astronaut’s beliefs. It reads, “The Earth – along with some spacecraft that humans have sent into space – supports all life we know. Though [Sharman] agrees with the view of many scientists that it is possible for meteorites to have brought to Earth molecules that were – or could be – precursors to life and perhaps even something we might consider to be life itself.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sharman is far from the only astronaut to speak out about the possibility of alien civilizations. In 2018 director Darren Aronofsky released One Strange Rock – a National Geographic documentary exploring life on Earth. And a number of astronauts gave interviews to the press while promoting the series.
Some, it seems, were reserved when discussing the prospect of alien life. In a 2018 interview with Mashable, astronaut Mae Jemison explained, “We have to think through things to find the evidence.” However, others such as Jeff Hoffman – who has clocked over 1,200 hours in space – were more enthusiastic.
“I believe there is life elsewhere in the universe,” Hoffman told Mashable. “But as a scientist, I look for evidence. And as yet, we have [none]. So, I have nothing to support my belief. But I still believe it.” Meanwhile, famous Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield pointed out the sheer size of the universe and highlighted the difficulty inherent in searching for alien civilizations.
Additionally, there is the possibility that our planet is completely unique and the only one in the universe capable of supporting living creatures. But most experts believe that such a scenario is incredibly unlikely. According to Hadfield, it might instead be the case that “life is relatively common,” although “complex, intelligent life is rare.”
Hadfield also noted that just a single discovery would open up an entire realm of possibility in the search for alien intelligence. He told Mashable, “If we can find one fossil on Mars, or one little tube worm deep under the oceans of Europa or Enceladus, then the universe is full of life.”
In September 2019 former NASA astronaut Michael Collins took part in a question and answer session on Twitter. Half a century earlier he had made history as the third person on the momentous Apollo 11 mission to the moon. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the lunar surface, Collins had piloted the command module that would bring them back to Earth.
Throughout the session, fans took the opportunity to ask Collins a number of probing questions. But one commenter took things even further – asking the former astronaut if he believed in the existence of alien life. The answer, surprisingly, was a resounding yes.
Unfortunately, Collins did not elaborate on the reason for his claim that aliens exist. But it seems probable that the astronaut and Sharman found such life an inevitability when confronted with the vastness of space. On Twitter, his answer was met with a flurry of comments – each agreeing with the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence existing somewhere in the universe.
But if these alien lifeforms do exist, will science ever succeed in tracking them down? In June 2020 – five months after Collins’ answer about alien life – a report was published in the Astrophysical Journal. Apparently, a group of researchers had returned to Drake’s equation and once again re-evaluated its results.
This time, the researchers fed new data into the equation, and they calculated that there could be more than 200 alien civilizations capable of communicating within our galaxy alone. But they conceded that the actual number may be much lower – at 36. However, because of the distance between our planet and these hypothetical life forms, it may be thousands of years before an actual conversation can begin.