There’s been some fuss about various British people who’ve been into space, as people try to claim Tim Peake as the first British astronaut. He’s the person to be put into space as a result of British taxes, which has the great advantage of being a repeatable approach, unlike the six other British citizens who have been in space before.
There are three basic categories of people on space missions: flight crew, scientific crew, and passengers.
Flight crew are the people who actually run the spacecraft. Scientific crew, while they have to be highly trained to be able to cope in space at all, are primarily there to run scientific experiments in space. Both of these groups are definitely astronauts. The third group are passengers, or space tourists. They’re giving enough training to cope, and then sent up and back down again; they pay a lot of money for their flight, but it’s arguable whether they are astronauts.
So the question is, who, other than Tim Peake, is a British astronaut.
Well, there are six people who had a British passport and went to space. In order of their first flight: Helen Sharman, Michael Foale, Mark Shuttleworth, Piers Sellers, Nicholas Patrick and Richard Garriott.
Flight crew form the majority of people who’ve been in space, and the three Brits (Foale, Sellers and Patrick) who flew on the Space Shuttle were all flight crew. All three of them were dual national British-Americans, and all three of them were only able to fly because of their American citizenship, which makes it rather difficult to claim them as British – it’s like claiming a gold medal for Britain at the Olympics, even though it’s an American flag flying and Star Spangled Banner being played.
Shuttleworth and Garriott are space tourists, which calls into question their status as “astronauts” – they’ve unquestionably gone to space, of course. They’re also both dual nationals, and both identify more strongly with their other nationality (South African and American respectively) than British. Garriott may have the nickname “British” (or “Lord British”, or “General British”), but he’s still really an American.
And finally, we get to Helen Sharman, who was scientific crew. Project Juno was a privately funded scientific programme, which paid for her to fly. For funding reasons, a lot of the scientific experiments were ditched, which might have left her experience somewhat underutilized on Mir, but she was certainly there as an astronaut. She was also the only single-national Brit in space before Tim Peake, and the only person to have the Union Jack on her spacesuit, ie to fly as a Brit, and not as an American or South African.
Tim Peake is important because, as long as the UK keeps contributing to ESA’s human spaceflight programme, British citizens can apply to the European Astronaut Corps and be selected to go into space. He’s not a one-off, but the first of a process that will bring more for as long as we keep funding it.
But he wasn’t the first British astronaut. Helen Sharman was. She was first. Really first, unarguably first, and she was definitely an astronaut. The other five are all dual nationals, all flew for their other nation, and two of them were tourists and arguably not really astronauts (they were still “people in space”, but that’s not the same thing).
Tim, you can argue in some ways, was (is) second – but the fact he’s the first to go up as part of a British space programme is far more important than whether he’s second or seventh.