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
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.