Mind Space - the moon, mars and me


[Image Credit Steve Humphreys 2018]

On Sunday, November 20th, 2022, in a live Zoom for Thought event, UCD Discovery director Professor Patricia Maguire (pictured above right) interviewed space reporter Dr Niamh Shaw (above left) in Temple Bar Gallery as part of Science Foundation Ireland’s C'mere Till I Tell Ye festival for Science Week. 


Of all the fascinating questions raised at Dr Niamh Shaw’s talk, Space Matters: The Moon, Mars and Me - not least from the many inquisitive kids in attendance - one has informed the 53-year-old’s unique career more than any other.  

“How do we change the stories that we tell ourselves?” she asked, describing how self-limiting beliefs prevented her, for decades, from pursuing her girlhood dream of going to space. 

“Every culture and every society tells you who you are and what you can and cannot do,” she told host Professor Patricia Maguire, festival organiser Philip Smyth and a packed audience of children, parents and other space enthusiasts. 

“I grew up in the eighties and even though I grew up in a house where science was everywhere, I thought someone like me couldn’t possibly be an astronaut. Someone like me couldn’t possibly go to space. It was only when I became an artist that all of that went out the window.”

Dr Shaw earned two engineering degrees and a PhD from University College Dublin and was working as a postdoc when she realised it wasn’t the life for her. She began to write and perform plays and improv and “slowly started to undo the restrictions that I put on myself”. One day, working in a rehearsal room for her first show, wearing a flight suit borrowed from the European Space Agency, she experienced “a moment of reality. I had done nothing to acknowledge what my wise, eight-year-old self knew had always been my passion”. She sat down and wrote another play, To Space, exploring ways of realising her dreams, silencing her inner critic and caring less about what others might say. 

As she pursued avenues into space, another epiphany came when Dr Shaw realised just how tiny we all are - and how short life is - next to the unfathomable expanse of the galaxies. 

“This made me realise, ‘Why am I sweating the small stuff? Why can’t I live the most amazing life possible?” She began “undoing the stories I told myself and letting them go”. 

Now she enjoys an extraordinary career - “I basically made up my own job,” she quipped - as a space reporter and European Space Agency Champion 2022. This involves attending and taking footage of space sector launches and events as part of the press pack and sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm with the rest of us. For over a decade she has been a keynote speaker, podcaster and award-winning science communicator with a bestselling book, Dream Big: An Irishwoman’s Space Odyssey

Dr Shaw showed the audience in Temple Bar her footage of the Artemis launch in August and explained how with these Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of colour on the moon. Using knowledge and experience gained from these expeditions to the Moon, they hope to eventually send the first astronauts to Mars. 

She deftly fielded a wide variety of audience questions: What planet has the most gravity? (Jupiter.) Are there dinosaurs on other planets? (Maybe.) Have astronauts ever travelled further into space than to the moon? (No.) How long would it take to get to Mars? (It depends on the positions of Earth and Mars as they separately orbit the sun; the closest distance between the two planets is seven months, the furthest, two years.)

“Ireland has a thriving space sector,” she added. “We're about to put a satellite in space called Eirsat-1 that's been made at UCD. I met an Irish guy who works at the European Space Agency's Astronaut Centre and he was telling me that there's a rover - a moving robot - going to the moon this year and it has a little piece of intelligence that was made by DCU.”

She explained the latest efforts being made to understand space’s enduring mysteries.

“We just put a really good telescope in space called the James Webb Space Telescope that's got a much better lens than the Hubble telescope. We are getting really amazing images from that.”

As an 8-year-old child Shaw was deeply moved by Earthrise, the famous photograph of Earth taken from lunar orbit during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.

“Of course that picture went on to inspire all of the environmental movements and climate activists we have now. It was the first time we saw our planet as this living breathing thing and realised that there's nobody coming anytime soon to take care of us because we're in the blackness of space.” 

Now space tourism is becoming more available so people can see Earthrise in real life - at a price.

“A company called Blue Origin can get you to the very edge of space for maybe ten minutes and then you slowly come down again. For the moment I think those flights are around $250,000.”

Dr Shaw explained that there is an age limit of 50 on astronauts “because of the huge investment involved. It’s around $20m for a seat, so they have to get a few missions out of you”.

But she still has not given up on that long-held dream of getting to space.

“It’s not about ticking that box or getting my wings - none of that interests me. It's about what can happen when you actually commit to the thing you really want to do with your life. I've spent a lot of time undoing the stories that restricted me from doing this. I would hope it would show people that if I did this crazy thing, you could do something amazing too.”