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Waking hours: Dr Niamh Shaw reaches for the stars

Dr. Niamh Shaw is a scientist, engineer, performer, writer and communicator. She abandoned a life in academia and is following her big dream: to go to space. From Dundalk, Co Louth, she lives in Dublin


Dr Niamh Shaw

Dr Niamh Shaw

Dr Niamh Shaw

I try to get up at the same time every day. Structure is very good for me. The alarm goes off at 6am, but there are many days that I don't stick to that. That's purely because my life can get busy very quickly.

I always meditate for about 20 minutes with the Headspace app. I like it because it tells you how many days you've done in a row and it really helps build your habits. I had nearly 30 days done and one day I forgot, so then I had to begin again. It's very useful. I log everything.

I shower and do yoga stretches. I try to exercise every day, and then I have my breakfast.

I think I had coronavirus. By the time I got a test, it was past the infection stage, so it came back negative, but my doctor is pretty convinced that I had it.

I was in self-isolation for 16 days. I had the temperature and the lung thing and flu-like symptoms. The fatigue was flattening. I'd never had the likes before. I kept thinking that I was getting better and then I'd try to do work on the computer. I made that mistake twice, and on the third day, I just had to sit on the couch.

Because I'm a scientist, I deal with the facts. I learned very quickly that there is an awful lot of scaremongering. I found one or two resources that became my bible, and I turned on the news every night at 9pm and that was it. Now, my life is about getting my strength back.

I live on my own. I haven't been in a relationship since the one I mention in my new book - Dream Big. It's all about my quest to go to space. I don't have kids, but I want to make my mark on the world by going to space as an ordinary person. I have a background in science and engineering and I have acted in and written three plays about trying to achieve my dream. In space, I would be the communicator. I would tell people what it is really like to be there, warts and all. I want to show them how difficult and dangerous it is - if I had headaches or vomited, I would be honest about it. By going up and returning, I hope I can make people reflect on their own life choices.

Space has always made me consider what life is really about - the people you love. Astronauts always talk about seeing the Earth in its entirety and the effect it has on them. Earth is fragile, and we need to take care of it and each other.

The thing about my space mission is that it is all-consuming. I'm not actively seeking a man, but if a man came along, he would really have to understand the priorities I have in my life. Astronauts understand the passion for space. And so you never have to compromise your life, because everybody understands it.

A lot of the new friends that I've made in recent years have all been involved in space in one way or another. They have such an incredible work ethic that they motivate you to work harder.

Normally in the mornings I'm getting up to head out the door to host an event, or visit a school, or do a corporate talk. It's always related to space and to communication. Before Covid-19, it was very rare that I'd be home for a week, but now I'm doing online courses. At the core of everything I do is this passion for space.

As a child, I watched Dr Who, Star Trek and my brother took me to the cinema to see Star Wars with his Confirmation money. My dream job was to be an astronaut. But then I studied engineering and science and I abandoned my dream. For years, there was always something missing. After my PhD, I was burnt out. I stepped away from science and studied acting. I became an actress for a while, even getting a part in Fair City. Then I wrote and performed three shows about my quest to go to space.

I am always planning my next mission. Previous missions have included attending a rocket launch and experiencing a zero-gravity flight. But the one that had the biggest influence on me was being in the Utah desert three years ago, where I simulated as if I was on Mars with a crew.

We went into a deserted research station and every time we went outside, we simulated as if we were on Mars. We had our own spacesuits and we went in with a fixed supply of dried food, and you had a ration of water and a very strict lifestyle in isolation. It made me reassess my life. When I came home, it changed my approach to everything. I stopped buying new clothes and I realised I had far too much stuff. It made me think about the food I eat and wasting water.

I can see that people are finding it difficult to adjust to self-isolation.

Many are listening to astronauts, hearing how they coped in quarantine and in space. The astronauts talk about structure and routine, and being kind to each other.

This pandemic makes people see the bigger picture. Space has already done that for me.

This current situation has been an easy shift for me because that simulated mission made me think about the people I love and how they can be taken away in an accident or an illness. Life is precious and fragile. In the evenings, I listen to podcasts or watch something on Netflix.

Before I put my head on the pillow, I reflect on the people I communicated with that day - did I offend anyone? If so, I think about how I'm going to fix things the next day. Every night I ask myself if I still want to go to space. The answer is always yes. But I always leave room in case that ever changes.




In conversation with Ciara Dwyer


'Dream Big' by Niamh Shaw is available online as an eBook, and also in all regular formats

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