In 1991 Helen Sharman made history as the first British person to leave planet Earth. The now-famous research chemist spent just over a week on board the space station Mir with a team of Soviet cosmonauts, so she knows a thing or two about what lies beyond our planet. So when Sharman released a report detailing her surprising views on extraterrestrial life, members of the scientific community all over the world were left in awe of her findings.
Are we alone in the universe?
Of course, Sharman isn’t alone in speculating about alien life. Ever since humans first gazed up at the stars, we’ve been asking ourselves the same question: are we alone in the universe? Hoping to find the answer, scientists began actively experimenting with ways to communicate with distant planets back in the 19th century. And as technology evolves, this field of science is only gaining more and more momentum.
A breakthrough in understanding
A major breakthrough came in the early 1960s when astronomer Frank Drake came up with a game-changing formula – one that is still used by scientists today. He claimed that by multiplying seven unique values together, researchers could get an accurate number of how many intelligent civilizations might be out there... and if they would be able to communicate with us.
The Drake equation
As it's now called, the 'Drake equation' has produced an extremely wide array of estimates as to the number of intelligent civilizations out there – ranging from billions to zero. To many, then, it’s viewed 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?
Life on Mars
In any case, there have been some investigations that have yielded some promising results. In 1976 NASA’s Viking Project was the first mission to successfully arrive on the surface of Mars, and it recorded some truly startling information. According to an experiment, nutrients in the soil were being metabolized into methane – suggesting the presence of organic life.
And while none of the Viking landers’ other experiments supported those findings – meaning NASA eventually dismissed them – there are still some who believe that the 1976 mission really did find evidence of life on Mars. Fast forward to 20 years later, and more proof emerged to support these same claims.
Meteorite from Mars
You see, in 1996 NASA researchers claimed to have identified nanobacteria on a meteorite that had originated from Mars. Then, six years on, a team of Russian scientists announced that a type of microbe now found on Earth may have actually originated on the Red Planet. Things didn't end there, either. In 2004 there was perhaps the most encouraging news to date.
The experts weigh in
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 it should be known, though, that the Red Planet isn’t the only potential source of alien life.
Detecting a signal
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, and it continues to baffle specialists to this day. In 1984 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was also established in order to search for and study any future transmissions from space.
Messages from afar
Then, 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... and it beamed out of what appeared to be an empty spot in space. According to many experts, this is the closest that humans have ever come to communicating with extraterrestrial life.
Signs of life
Yet researchers have picked up other possible indicators on planets a little closer to home. For example, in 2002 astrobiologists at the University of Texas suggested that microbes may just account for chemical anomalies in the clouds above Venus. The following year, researchers in Italy theorized that the sulfur present on Europa – a moon of Jupiter – could perhaps be evidence of organic activity.
Hundreds of thousands of potential alien civilizations
In 2001 experts also revisited the Drake equation, using new techniques to refine the factors first outlined 50 years beforehand. Now, they were able to more accurately estimate many of the elements used to make the calculation. And the team eventually concluded that the number of potential alien civilizations capable of communicating with Earth was actually in the hundreds of thousands.
Mysteries of the universe
Still, 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. Since the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961, over 550 astronauts have journeyed to the stars. Today, in fact, 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.
At that time, 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. However, 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 as a result, they hit upon the idea of Project Juno.
The search for an astronaut
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 nations. Now, all they needed to complete their plan was a willing volunteer.
Defying the odds
Of course, that task eventually fell to Sharman. She had grown up in the English city of Sheffield with an interest in science from a young age. And even though she’d been warned by a teacher that chemistry and physics classes were dominated by men, Sharman decided to pursue her passion. Then, after graduating from Birkbeck College in London, she found a job as a research chemist in Slough.
“Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.”
And after two years working for the confectionery company Mars Wrigley, Sharman happened to hear a radio advertisement seeking participants for Project Juno. This announced, “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” Intrigued, the chemist joined 13,000 individuals all keen to become the first British person in space. It would be many years, though, before she announced that not only did she believe in aliens, but that she also thought they may already be among us.
Fast-track to the top
Slowly, the team behind Project Juno filtered through the applicants and eventually came up with a shortlist of 150 candidates – a list that included a hopeful Sharman. And although she did not have any previous experience in the field, her foreign language skills, scientific education, and levels of personal fitness helped propel her straight to the top of the list.
And then there were two
Then, 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 coveted spot was Major Tim Mace – a helicopter pilot with a background in aeronautical engineering. Together, the pair would travel to Russia to begin training.
For 18 months the two hopefuls prepared for the mission, with neither of them knowing which one would actually make it into space. Then, finally, a decision was made: Sharman would be the one to accompany the Russian cosmonauts to Mir. And in May 1991 the 27-year-old boarded a rocket in Kazakhstan and began her incredible journey out to the stars.
Come in, planet Earth
For eight days, Sharman lived and worked on Mir, conducting a number of experiments up in space. As well as studying the effect of microgravity on crystals, she carried out a range of biological tests. When Sharman wasn’t immersed in scientific work, however, she had another way to fill her time. The Sheffield native used a radio to communicate with curious children back on Earth.
Harsh conditions aboard Mir
And while conditions on the International Space Station are relatively luxurious (by space standards, at least) – astronauts enjoy state-of-the-art communications technology and even gourmet food – they stand in stark contrast to life on Mir. According to Sharman, meals there consisted of canned meat and soup, and it was common for power cuts to leave the entire station in the dark.
Retreating from the limelight
But 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. Still, this fame was short-lived; unwilling to become a celebrity, the one-time astronaut withdrew from the blaze of publicity. Instead, she simply returned to normality. Then, 24 years after Sharman’s visit to Mir, European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake embarked on a mission to the ISS.
A second Briton in space
By that time, Project Juno had been all but forgotten, and so many regarded him as the first official Briton in space. His predecessor, meanwhile, had begun working as operations manager at Imperial College London’s Department of Chemistry. Yet while Sharman appears not to overly court publicity, she has spoken about life in space in the years since her time on Mir.
Extraterrestrials among us
And in January 2020 a conversation published in The Guardian thrust the pioneering astronaut into the limelight once more – as she had some surprising things to say about aliens. 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 indeed a staunch believer in the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. What’s more, she claimed that aliens may already be here.
“Aliens exist. There [are] 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.” The former astronaut acknowledged, however, that extraterrestrial beings may look completely different from what we would assume. So no green skin and big round heads, then? Apparently not...
Hidden in plain sight
When speaking about what she did think they might look like, Sharman explained, “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.” That said, on her website, she is quick to point out that she does not believe humanoid aliens are currently residing on Earth.
Life as we know it
On a separate page dedicated to the topic of alien life, Sharman’s website details the former astronaut’s beliefs. This reads, “The Earth – along with some spacecraft that humans have sent into space – supports all life we know. [But 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.”
One Strange Rock
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 while promoting the series, a number of astronauts were interviewed by the press. And 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.” By contrast, 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.”
To the end of the universe
Not all space-faring travelers were so cynical, however. Take famous Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, for example, who pointed out the sheer size of the universe and, in doing so, highlighted the difficulty inherent in searching for alien civilizations. Furthermore, while there is the possibility that our planet is completely unique and the only one in the universe capable of supporting living creatures, most experts believe that such a scenario is incredibly unlikely.
The problem of intelligence
According to Hadfield, it may instead be the case that while “life is relatively common, 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.”
The Moon mission
And in September 2019 former NASA astronaut Michael Collins spoke out during 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 were the first men to walk on the lunar surface, Collins had piloted the command module that would bring them all back to Earth.
A resounding "yes"
Throughout the session, fans seized the opportunity, then, to ask Collins a number of probing questions. But one commenter took things even further. He asked the former astronaut whether he believed in the existence of alien life. And the answer, astonishingly, 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.
Re-evaluating the Drake Equation
And on Twitter, his answer was met with a flurry of comments – each agreeing with the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence existing somewhere in the universe. Still, even if these alien lifeforms do exist, will science ever succeed in tracking them down? Well, in June 2020 – so, five months after Collins’ Twitter response – 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.
Let the conversations begin
This time, the team had fed new data into the equation, and consequently they had calculated that there could be more than 200 alien civilizations capable of communicating within our galaxy alone. But we probably shouldn’t get too excited yet. The researchers conceded, after all, that the actual number of civilizations may be much lower – at just 36. And owing to the distance between our planet and these hypothetical life forms, it may be thousands of years before an actual conversation can begin.