Monday 17 June 2019

'If I don't do this, it will haunt me for the rest of my life' - Former Fair City actress on her determination to become an astronaut

With talents in both science and drama, Dr Niamh Shaw has successfully combined her passions and carved a unique career for herself making space exploration interesting for everyone. But the Dundalk woman has her sights set on the ultimate goal - becoming an astronaut. Here, Darragh McManus meets a lady on an interplanetary mission

Artist and adventurer: Dr. Niamh Shaw. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Artist and adventurer: Dr. Niamh Shaw. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Dr. Niamh Shaw Communicator, Engineer and Space Explorer at her home in Blackrock Dublin. Pic Steve Humphreys
Giant leaps: Astronaut Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin walks on the moon in 1969.
Dr Niamh Shaw preparing for her simulated mission to Mars. Photo: Naoise Culhane

'As an artist," Dr Niamh Shaw says, "you keep exploring." She, as it happens, is both artist and explorer, in the most literal sense. And she's a woman on a mission, again in the literal sense: Niamh Shaw wants to go into space, and has done some amazing things over the last few years as part of that journey, including participating in 'simulated' Mars missions.

Someday, she fervently believes, it will happen: the powers-that-be in space exploration, Niamh says, "can't ignore me forever". And when she finally does, to quote the poet, "slip the surly bonds of earth", this odyssey she's undertaken to get there will be as meaningful and epic as the extra-terrestrial voyage itself.

Let's go right back to the start. She now lives in Blackrock, in a lovely terrace overlooking Dublin Bay, but was born in Dundalk in the late 1960s. The "family bond" in her house growing up wasn't the usual stuff, such as sport or music, but science fiction and information.

"We couldn't get enough information," she says now. "I think it was probably a strategy on Mum and Dad's part. I remember him buying encyclopaedias, and they'd be on the shelf for us to look up stuff. The programmes they'd have on would be things like David Attenborough, or Cosmos with Carl Sagan, and we'd all watch Doctor Who together too. Dad also subscribed to the National Geographic, which had all these inserts and a lot of them were space-related. So it was everywhere."

Dr Niamh Shaw preparing for her simulated mission to Mars. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Dr Niamh Shaw preparing for her simulated mission to Mars. Photo: Naoise Culhane

Her brother, she recalls, was "a total space-nut" as well, so the seed was planted early. It really began to bloom after a "lightbulb moment" of seeing the Earthrise pictures - those hauntingly beautiful images of our planet, taken from lunar orbit, which basically kick-started the environmental movement as we know it. Niamh thought, "'God, I really want to see that for myself' - and that feeling never left. It never left.

"Every child gets the wonder of the universe. And if we stop and think, every adult gets it too. Life maybe moves too fast for adults, though, or their relationship with science changes, or they switch off that curious part of their brain for whatever reason. But it doesn't take much to get people to pause and think about their existence. And when they do take that time to reflect, invariably they'll think about our place in space, why we are here, our existence, the purpose of life, all of it."

Throughout her teens and twenties, Niamh kept diaries, and reading them back as an adult, she sees that "astronaut" was invariably mentioned as an ideal job. But as Milton put it, "long is the way, and hard, that leads up to the light": hers has been a roundabout path to get where she is today.

The young Niamh would "restrict" her own ambitions, telling herself that a career in space exploration was simply "not possible". She'd become "distracted by something else", but the thought never left her subconscious; the dream refused to die.

In the meantime, she did a degree in mechanical engineering, focusing on Biosystems, in UCD; a Master's in the same discipline; then a "really cool" PhD in Food Science, studying "bio-packaging that dissolved, made from milk proteins".

She was on a course of academia, and that, Niamh says, "was success to a lot of people. But to me, there was always something missing." On getting her doctorate, she took a university job, doing post-doctoral research, but it "really was meaningless", and there was a lot of politicking and jockeying for funding that soured academia for her.

"I'd become quite bitter about science," she says. "I'd sort of lost my love for it, my curiosity, which was sad." Niamh was at a crossroads.

But one good thing about doing a PhD, she reckons, is that "there's nowhere to hide - you put yourself through something that difficult, it gives you the confidence to say no." So she said no to a life of academia, instead turning to art.

She'd always been a creative child, writing plays, performing for family and friends. As an adult Niamh had been "acting on and off in am-dram" for years, and in the early Noughties began getting involved in the theatre scene in Cork, involving some of that city's most iconic names: the Everyman, the Granary, Corcadorca.

Niamh got "more and more involved", and decided she wanted to pursue this for a few years. The stage acting "went well", and there were some TV roles: you probably remember her as Frances McGuigan in Fair City around a decade ago, and she also appeared in Mattie and Inspector George Gently, among others. Then she started creating plays with others, who encouraged Niamh to bring her science background and knowledge into the process.

Dr. Niamh Shaw Communicator, Engineer and Space Explorer at her home in Blackrock Dublin. Pic Steve Humphreys
Dr. Niamh Shaw Communicator, Engineer and Space Explorer at her home in Blackrock Dublin. Pic Steve Humphreys

"That was it," she says, "I was off. I realised that I was a combination of both art and science. In terms of the scientific part of my brain, I love contributing to radio and making events for the general public. My performing skills are useful in that I have no fear of people, I can improvise - I did comedy improv for 13 years - and love interacting with the audience. I have the skills to tell a story and get people comfortable.

"The way all this overlaps with the creative part of me is hard to define or explain to people. They'll ask, 'How can you do both? Why do you want to write plays and make documentaries?' But I get just as excited about all of it."

Niamh studied up on particle physics as research for her first theatre show, That’s About the Size of It, and was invited by the arts initiative at CERN (Arts@CERN) to meet physicists and chat about her ideas. She found it “very helpful in crafting the show”, which uses multiple dimensions to reflect on life choices. Ultimately, it all led to a seminal moment of clarity.

"I was looking at dimensions to help me figure out where I'm supposed to go next with my life," she says. "The fifth dimension concerns possibilities and probabilities, and says that every time you make a decision, your fourth-dimensional self bisects into two. You become like a tree of choices made. So by the tenth dimension, you can draw this tree of life, built by your decisions, and hop from one to the other.

"So for that show I looked at all these times when I made a decision that put me on a different course, and sent my fourth-dimensional self in a different direction. Say, the girl who stayed in research, or worked in London Underground, or decided to become an actor or an astronaut or even a Muppet."

She and a colleague made videos for the show, re-enacted these "sliding doors" moments. When it came to make Astronaut Niamh, she found it "really difficult. I had a boiler suit, like an astronaut's flight suit, and lined up a load of science fiction movies, things that made me feel like I was going to space. And I started to get really sad. I felt embarrassed and was crying. I'd had a massive realisation: I wasn't an astronaut, and had done nothing about it. I was all talk, a big fake."

In that moment, Niamh realised: "If I don't do something about this, it will haunt me for the rest of my life. This unrealised dream will be gnawing at the back of my mind forever. I felt I had no choice. So then it was a question of, how can I achieve this dream and get into space?"

Unfortunately, there was no question of applying directly to become an astronaut. For one thing, you must be a US citizen to get on-board with NASA. The European Space Agency's (ESA) last call for astronauts was in 2009, back when Niamh wasn't "seriously pursuing this dream", so she hasn't had the opportunity yet. (The minimum criteria for astronaut selection, incidentally, include: a degree in engineering or science, or fighter-pilot experience; overall good state of health; the ability to swim; an English-speaker, with knowledge of Russian an advantage. The application also contains "tonnes of essay-type questions and, if you make it to the next round, extensive psychological and physical tests".)

In the meantime, then, she kept on going. For her next show, To Space, she got onto ESA's education and outreach office, which brought her in contact with Science Foundation Ireland. Meanwhile, the "tenth-dimension" show had gone to Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork, who agreed to make a new one, about Niamh's dream. They also made her artist-in-residence.

She spent a year researching and producing To Space for Dublin Fringe. She travelled to ESA's Technology and Research Centre in the Netherlands, making more connections. To Space launched in 2014, people loved it, it "kept touring". Culture Ireland supported the show; it went to Edinburgh, Adelaide, "resonating with people, especially those over 30, about their own life choices".

This encouraged Niamh "to keep going. Either I get there, or I wake up one day and feel that I've satisfied that need and can move on to something else."

Next came a scholarship for the International Space University's 2015 Space Studies Programme in Ohio, in partnership with NASA: nine intensive weeks of learning from many of the top space scientists in the world. Niamh met astrobiologists, geologists specialising in Mars, people from all kinds of disciplines.

She was the only artist there, but towards the end of the programme, her contribution to one project convinced the hard-science guys and gals that "the way I think was valuable. It made them think about their contribution when they returned to their communities. I taught some of them how to out-reach."

A few went on to take part in a simulated Mars mission in Utah, funded by Elon Musk, and "wanted to bring a human element to their application, so asked me to apply too." Niamh was accepted. Her next simulated mission was in Israel, which she recorded. To this day, she says, "I still get asked to give talks about these Mars missions. I seem to be able to make it more accessible to the public. This was a skill I could pursue."

She's also done a Zero Gravity flight in Russia, travelling with a collective of Mexican artists and two German women in training as astronauts. "It was great, and when I came back and shared the footage, it made people realise how amazing astronauts are. And I realised: I'm really on to something here.

"If anything will get me into space, it'll be as a communicator. I'm too old to be an astronaut. I am an engineer but don't have the right degrees. I'm not a pilot or an astrophysicist. But I seem to be able to relate this information in a way that people can hear it. They get the vulnerability of what it is to be a human."

Her third theatre show, Diary of a Martian Bee-keeper, was inspired by those Mars missions. Niamh interviewed the technicians working at ESA's Astronaut Centre: she calls them "the unsung heroes. The astronaut is just the tip of the pen; the really interesting people are those who do all the work to make it possible: making seatbelts and rivets, figuring out propulsion systems, thousands and thousands of them, sharing the same passion and making space travel happen. That show was also a love letter to my dad, who's always encouraged me to be myself."

She's just returned from Baikonure Cosmodrome in Kazhakstan for astronaut Alexander Gerst's launch to the ISS, which came about because the Russians really liked her work: "I'm on their radar." Niamh describes it as a really visceral thing: "the ground vibrates and there's so much light and heat and sound."

Essentially, she has carved out a career as a sort of "artist of space": someone who can witness, document and capture the wondrous achievements of this field, and perhaps most importantly, make it comprehensible and interesting to the general public.

"And I hope that if I keep doing this, and become some sort of expert in it, I can't be ignored forever. The day will come when they realise the importance of putting an artist or communicator up on the International Space Station, or a permanent habitat on the moon, or ultimately on a journey to Mars. I can go, and then return to explain it. You'd imagine forward-thinking people would see the merit in that - I just have to earn my stripes first. So this feels like an apprenticeship at the moment."

She is a genuinely inspirational woman, with a fierce courage and singlemindedness. The day job, or jobs, include her work with Blackrock Castle, media contributions, public talks and panel discussions, and hosting STEM-related events, among a wild diversity of other projects. She's lectured in Japan and at TEDx, been honoured by President Higgins and is the Dublin point of contact for Ireland's national Space Week. Her latest project, the Science Gallery's 'Life at the Edges' exhibition in Trinity, runs from June 22 to September 30.

(She's also not the only Irish woman with their sights trained on the stars. Mayo scientist Norah Patten, a doctor of aeronautical engineering from UL, is one of 12 participants in Project PoSSUM - Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere - a unique scientist-astronaut training programme which takes place in Florida next October.)

It is, Niamh accepts, a tough life in some ways - but a blessed one too. "I've made some huge personal sacrifices: I live alone, I've very few outgoings. Every penny I make goes on the next trip, the next mission. I've stripped my life down to its simplest elements. And I know most people can't do this, they don't have the luxury of being able to change their life mid-stream. So I do honour that - and realise how lucky I am to be able to pursue this."

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