Her mission: to be the first Irish female astronaut

How does an ‘average Irish woman’ realise her wild ambition?

Niamh Shaw: ‘I always imagined one day I would don a spacesuit.’ Photograph: David Sleator

Niamh Shaw: ‘I always imagined one day I would don a spacesuit.’ Photograph: David Sleator

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 01:00

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with space exploration. I always imagined that one day I would don a spacesuit, hitch a ride on a rocket and see the Earth from afar.

Queuing recently for Chris Hadfield’s book-signing of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, I realised that there are many of us who share this near-impossible dream.

However, I have done very little to achieve it. And even if I put my mind to it, how does an average woman like me realise such a wild ambition?

I have set myself a goal this year. I will spend 2014 finding out exactly what it would take for me to get to space, and, as an actor and scientist, I hope to present a theatrical show with the results.

I will be meeting former astronauts, fellow space enthusiasts, space agencies, Irish space-related businesses as well as teaching myself basic astrophysics, astronomy, and other space science subjects.

For 50 years, people have been leaving Earth and heading outside our atmosphere. In that time about 270 of the finest, fittest, most accomplished few have had the privilege.

They are propelled by massive rocket thrusters to eventually travel at a coasting speed of 28,000km per hour, orbiting the world every 90 minutes.

Imagine the enormous strength it must take to bear that initial force on your body to leave our planet, how fit you must be, mentally and physically: like a blue-bottle fly strapped to the front of a Formula One car as it whizzes around a circuit at 300km an hour. Re-entry into our orbit is even more gruelling, as the astronaut must recover from the painful side effects of weightlessness.

No launch pad in Dundalk
I don’t feel too bad for not having made much headway in my childhood ambition. In the 1980s it was hardly like there were astronauts hanging around Dundalk shopping centre on a Saturday who you could casually approach and ask “well, hae, Mr Astronaut. Could you please tell me how you did it?”

And neither was there a third-level course you could tick in your CAO form to hoist you on to the first rung of your space career ladder.

I grew up in a house of engineers. My family had a shared passion for technology and exploration. But while my dad and my brother John were satisfied with admiring the achievements of the space race, I developed an urgent need to participate.

There are a few of us out there. Joseph Roche, a talented astrophysicist, fellow space enthusiast and potential astronaut for a proposed expedition to Mars in 2024, wants the opportunity to participate in astrophysical research of the red planet and of our universe.

And 65-year-old Limerick man Cyril Bennis has his reasons too. Inspired by a visit from Nasa astronaut John Glenn to his school 50 years ago, he will realise his dream to visit space this year when he takes off on Lynx Mark I, a California-based XCor Aerospace spacecraft, paying €120,000 for the privilege.

If everything goes according to plan, he will also beat Bob Geldof – who wants to take a seat on the maiden voyage of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic fleet – to be the first Irishman in space.

These privately funded spacecraft are all part of a new space tourism business. Hopefully in time the tariff will decrease to a more affordable figure.


The overview effect

I have a dream: I would like to be the first Irish female astronaut. Astronauts describe an experience called the “overview effect”, the sensation of seeing the reality of our Earth in space as a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a crucial paper-thin atmosphere and slowly spinning about in the deep velvet darkness of the universe. The chance to see this 360-degree vista of the universe is the biggest draw for me.

Hadfield’s recent visit reignited the desire to visit space in many people who had long forgotten their childhood dream. At the BT Young Scientist’s gala ball, Hadfield, now Ireland’s tourism ambassador, said: “If you bank your whole life on an event in the future happening, you would be setting yourself up for misery, especially if it’s something that’s beyond your control. So all you can do is say, ‘Well, I’m dreaming of it. It’s probably never going to happen. Don’t measure success on this event happening’.”

And yet this year I plan to discover whether an average woman with a stratospheric ambition can make it happen. Like Hadfield says, a girl can dream.

Niamh Shaw will be participating in Engineers Week events at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork, on February 10 and 13, as part of her artist residency and the making of her new show about space

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