Niamh Shaw’s dream is out of this world

Niamh Shaw wants to to go to space and has fashioned her quest into a one-act play, which blends memoir into the narrative, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

DR NIAMH SHAW has hitched her wagon to the stars. She’s determined to go to space. As an actress — who starred in Fair City, among other shows — and scientist, who worked in UCC for a spell, she has an unusual mix of credentials for her mission.

The dream has been festering since she was a child. She watched the movie Star Wars in Carlow in 1977 when she was aged eight. The seats, carpet and walls of the cinema were all burgundy; it reeked of stale smoke and popcorn. Intoxicated by the film (and Princess Leia’s hair) she remembers turning to her brother and telling him: “Hey, John, I want to be an astronaut!”

Then, however, life got in the way, including careers, travel and a marriage that didn’t work out.

Now, she’s recalibrated her dream. She has spent the last few years getting to know everyone she can in the space industry — and has just completed nine weeks in Ohio at a Space Studies programme — so one day she can get on a rocket out of here.

She’s fashioned her quest, which blends personal memoir into the narrative, into a one-person play. Entitled To Space, it will be performed for three weeks at this month’s fringe festival in Edinburgh. She says there is a need for an artist, such as herself, to go to space.

“Nasa and the European Space Agency understand that artists are necessary to progress people’s perceptions of new technologies. They understand that people are interested in space and what weightlessness is like and the value of seeing the earth from a distance.

“We just have to push them a little bit further and let artists go up there and interpret what space is like, as writers or painters or photographers or myself as a performer, who can come back and perform to people.”

Shaw says the amount of fuel used to propel the astronauts’ spacecraft means it’s akin to “asking a mosquito to drive a Formula One car”.

The physical hardships for astronauts, who wear nappies during flight, include nausea, dizziness, vomiting. She can imagine what it would be like.

“At the start, my body is going to be in a terrible state of stress and confusion. My job, when I’m up there, is to grasp that and explain it to people: ‘You’ve no idea how tough this is.’ The astronauts don’t tell you.

“The biggest thing is that I want to step back and see the Earth in one piece. It changes your perception of your place. It doesn’t matter whether you’re from Japan, America, Russia, China or Ireland, we’re in this together. You’d hope that all the stupid conflicts that divide people and all the wars over land and who owns what becomes irrelevant when you see the bigger picture. We have one thing to do: We have to ensure the future preservation of our species, and we’re in this together.”

If Shaw is to make it into space, it will likely take about another 10 years of training. Age could pose a problem, as, while Nasa says there are no restrictions, previous candidates have been aged from 26 to 46. She admits the chances are slim, particularly when you take into account that, according to Nasa, it costs about $70m to put somebody in space, which excludes the training to get an astronaut on the seat.

“The big thing about the show, which is not just about space, is that it is about the power of dreams and impossible dreams, the one that I have. I’m sure other people have impossible dreams. Two things can happen. I do it or I find someway of resolving it for myself. Either way, I’m in it for the long haul.”

To Space will be performed as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre on Monday.


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