Huge Career Change
In 2003, I stepped away from a full-time academic career in research to pursue the creative arts, something that I had always been interested in but I had never explored it fully. I knew I had to make a change in my working life to feel more fulfilled.
Combining Science and Theatre
In August 2011 I was creating my first show, combining science with theatre. I was making a show about particles because I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. And some of the maths which explores particle physics made me look at my life decisions and all the possible outcomes of my life, and what would have happened if those lives still continued- The girl who stayed on in full-time research, the girl who stayed working at London Underground in her first engineering job, the girl who emigrated to New Zealand and took that job in fish gut research (yes!), the girl who wanted to be a ballerina, the girl who wanted to be a muppet (yes, I made that one) and the girl who wanted to be an astronaut.
The Wake Up Moment
It was then, that I realised that I had done little or nothing about being an astronaut, which perplexed me. Since the age of 8, I’ve known that I wanted to go to Space. But, 30 years later I had done absolutely nothing about it. When did I give up on that dream?
This was my moment of clarity. Realising this changed everything, and the course of my life forever. I saw myself completely differently in that moment. My perception shifted. Now it still took me another 3 years to do something about it! But everything was different after that day. And so it began. I still have a very long way to go, but I’ve already experienced some pretty great adventures.
One Small Step for Niamh!
My first step into the space dream was an article in The Irish Times, on February 11th 2014. I knew that if I went public then I couldn’t back out. I had decided to devote 2014 to explore how to get to space. And becoming the Artist in Residence at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory
Theatre Show – To Space
I made a theatre show about it all, called ‘To Space’, which I performed at Dublin Fringe Festival in 2014, then at Edinburgh fringe 2015 and then an international tour of the show, including Adelaide Fringe in 2016.
I met with people working at the European Space Agency (ESA) for the first time, reached out to a wider global space community who all supported me in making this show. So I was off!
The International Space University’s annual Space Studies Programme & A Simulated Mars mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in the high Utah desert
Through the people that I had met in making ‘To Space’ in 2015, I attended the International Space University’s annual Space Studies Programme in Ohio in partnership with NASA, through a scholarship that ESA awarded me. This was a nine-week intensive programme where I met and worked with over 120 people from all over the world who shared my passion for space.
I also met with astronauts and leading space scientists and engineers who all share my passion for space. Normalising a dream, that up until then seemed impossible. (I wrote a weekly blog about my experiences on the Space Studies Programme)
A Simulated Mars mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in the high Utah desert
Some of my Space Studies Programme alumni invited me to join them as an artist and writer in applying for a mission to Mars (ish!)- a simulated Mars mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in the high Utah desert in the US.
Our application was successful and so in January 2017, I spent two and half days getting to the habitat and together with my fellow 4 crew mates of Crew 173, we lived for over 2 weeks as if we were on Mars – with limited water, food and energy, no showers and a requirement to ‘suit up’ in space suits every time we had to venture outside on EVA Extra Vehicular Activities). (I wrote a daily blog about my experiences).
It was an experience that I will never forget and it taught me loads about long-duration missions and the importance of being a selfless crew mate. And that space exploration is largely about people and taking care of each other.
Theatre Show – ‘Diary of a Martian Beekeeper’
There are so many people involved in putting just one astronaut in to space, so many years of research and preparation. And it really got me thinking about the massive group effort behind space, the extent of cutting-edge engineering, science and design to minimise risk to life and the harsh reality of long-duration human missions on inhospitable and extreme environments. I wanted to represent these people, these ‘outside the box’ thinkers, these selfless crew members and unsung heroes in my next theatre show. Thanks to funding from Science Foundation Ireland and the support of CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, and a kick-ass creative team, I presented ‘Diary of a Martian Beekeeper’ during Space week October 2017. The show will be presented in Dublin at Smock Alley theatre Mar 13-16 and then embarks on a UK tour later this summer.
It is said that the ‘Earthrise’ picture kickstarted the whole environmental movement, made us really think about how fragile our planet is and that we need to do more to protect our beautiful Earth. I learned beekeeping with my father last year and brought this in to the show to highlight the dangerous fate of bees and that if we all work together, we can achieve incredible things.
Zero Gravity Flight
My space adventures continued – I got to go to Star City in Moscow in August 2017 and visited the Cosmonaut Training Facility as well as experience a Zero Gravity flight. This was amazing!
It’s known as the ‘vomit comet’ because so many experience sickness due to the extreme motion and flight path of the plane. I was sure that I would throw up for the entire flight and that I wouldn’t know how to move in free fall, but I was thrilled with myself when I got along quite well in the flight.
Weightlessness is a crazy sensation, the closest thing I could compare it to would be learning to swim. You are constantly trying to figure out what’s happening with your body, and so the longer you are in free fall the more you understand how to move. It was an incredible experience and I intend to return to Moscow again for another flight, hopefully later this year.
A Live launch at Baikonur cosmodrome June 2018
On June 8th 2018, 3 astronauts launched to the International Space Station, one of them was Alexander Gerst, a Geophysicist and one of European Space Agency’s corp of astronauts. He launched with NASA’s Serena Aunon Chancellor and Roscosmos Caomonaut Sergei Prokoviev. They were beginning their six-month mission on the International Space Station. And I went to Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazaksthan to watch their launch live on the Soyuz rocket MS-09. It was incredible.
Return of Alexander Gerst to Earth, December 2018
Alexander Gerst and his 2 crewmates that I had seen launch, returned to Earth safely in the early hours of 20 December 2018 after 197 days in space, 195 of them on board the International Space Station ISS. The Soyuz MS-09 touched down close to Karaganda in the Kazakh steppe right on schedule at 06:02 Central European Time. And I returned to Kazkasthan to witness his return to Earth. And while, I was in the country where he landed, my team and I were stranded 400 kms away due to sever weather conditions preventing us from travelling to the landing site. It was so disappointing to be so near and yet still so far.
Thankfully, while at a recent trip to the European Space Agency (ESA), I met Alexander & I shared my story with him, of how I had attended his launch and near-landing.
Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
I spent the first half of my life avoiding what I truly wanted, keeping myself busy achieving other things , but now I’m finally focussed. And I want to share everything with the public in the pursuit of this goal- tears, fears, laughter, joy, vulnerability, honesty, all of it to ultimately remind us that we can be anything we want to be, if we are brave and bold enough to simply let that be.
I sure would love your help and support in helping me realise this goal.