Niamh Shaw (53) is an engineer, scientist, writer and space communicator. She is also a former actress and used to be in Fair City. Her big mission in life is to go to space and report back as “an ordinary person”. Last year she became Ireland’s first European Space Agency Champion in recognition of her innovative work as a space educator. Born in Dundalk, she lives between Dublin and France.
What were you like as a child?
I was a very logical kid and I loved school. I loved science fiction and facts and trying to figure things out. But I was also very creative – writing plays and performing them.
What three words best describe you?
Enthusiastic, curious and passionate.
What drives you?
My curiosity and passion to understand our place in the overall scheme of things.
As a kid I was obsessed with space. I wanted to stand on the Moon. But there were no role models around me, so it didn’t dawn on me that a girl from Dundalk could have a career in space. I want to activate the impossible dream.
Explain your big space dream.
I want a role that doesn’t really exist yet. I want to be a communicator in space, somebody who reports and shares their experiences to the general public. It’s different to what an astronaut does because they are subjective and they’ve got way too much to do in space. Astronauts are emotionally intelligent and team players but they won’t ever share their difficulties in space.
What are you going to do in space?
I’m interested in what happens if a flawed person went up, somebody who has an ability to share with people if they are afraid, or dizzy and vomiting.
By doing this, what do you hope to achieve?
I want to inspire people. I want them to think: ‘She is the most normal person in the world and she did what she said she was going to do by putting her mind to it. If she can do that, I can do what I want to do.’
You will meet Commander Chris Hadfield this week at the UCD Festival. What interests you most about him?
What fascinates me about him is his ability to describe the humanity of space. I think he shone a light on Ireland and brought Ireland into the relationship with space. Up until then, Ireland wasn’t connected with space. But he chose to share a picture of, and keep talking about, Ireland, and on St Patrick’s Day, he tweeted about it. For my generation, he was the first space person in Ireland that we celebrated when he came back to Earth. He was like a superstar.
What are you going to ask him?
When he goes to sleep, does he dream as if he’s still on the International Space Station floating?
Best advice you were given?
Do your best always.
Best advice you give?
Pursue the thing that you are most passionate about and don’t wait for permission from someone else to tell you that you are enough to do that.
Who is your role model?
Wally Funk. She was a pilot and part of Mercury 13. She was one of the FLATs (First Lady Astronaut Trainees) as they called themselves. She trained but she never got to space. Last July, at the age of 82, she was in the very first sub-orbital commercial launch from Blue Origin with Jeff Bezos. It doesn’t matter when, you can definitely fulfil your life’s dreams if you just stick with it.
You were an academic, then an actor. How do you feel looking back at these former selves?
When you live your life pursuing the thing you are most passionate about, you shed other lives. I’m my most honest, happiest, purest version of myself.
Niamh Shaw will be in conversation with Chris Hadfield as part of The UCD Festival on Saturday, June 11. A celebration of culture, science and innovation, the family-friendly event features over 130 events across the Belfield campus. All events are free. ucd.ie/festival