Image: NASA

International Space University: How to become an Astronaut

Sunday, June 14, 15

Hi all,

Greetings from the stunning campus of Ohio University, Athens Ohio. I’m here because this is the host site for the International Space University’s annual Space Studies Programme, a 9 week intensive postgraduate professional development programme about all things Space. Yes, that’s what I said, All. Things. Space. And it doesn’t disappoint.  And I’m delighted to be writing for HeadStuff to share a little of what’s going on while I’m here.

Week 1 has just finished and so much has happened already. There are 113 participants from 30 countries with many varied backgrounds, some are already working at their national space agencies, others are recent graduates from aerospace engineering. And then there are some from humanities or other non-technology backgrounds, or people like me, who straddle both worlds of technology and the arts. A diverse international, interdisciplinary, and intercultural group with one common bond. We all love Space.

I’m slowly working my way through speaking with all of them -I’m probably on about 30 so far, but there are 9 weeks ahead of team projects, presentations, excursions, and lots of lectures, all living and dining together. I have every confidence that I will know everyone intimately by the time August 8th comes around.

The intense, close-working environment is a key element of the Space Studies Programme (or SSP15 as we like to call it). As John Connolly SSP15 Director (on loan from NASA Johnson Space Centre) told us on our first night here,

‘You guys make the programme, getting to know each other, working closely together. And you will learn the most from each other. And form life-long bonds. SSP is going to change your life’.

There are 5 of us making TeamIreland this year and I’m in pretty great company: Orla Punch from Limerick, who submitted her final year thesis in architecture at UL the day before she flew out (her thesis focused on the design and construction of future homes on Mars). Hugh Byrne is an engineer working at avionics company Curtiss Wright. Jonathan Faull is an engineer working at UCD, and our youngest teammate, James McCreight from Belfast, finished his last final year exam in aerospace engineering the day before the course started.

SSP15 Irish- From L to R_ Hugh Byrne, Niamh Shaw, Orla Punch, James McCreight, Jonathan Faull
SSP15 Irish- From L to R_ Hugh Byrne, Niamh Shaw, Orla Punch, James McCreight, Jonathan Faull

Our first team task is to come up with something for next Friday’s culture night- a series of weekly presentations about the culture and cuisine of your country.  The standards are very high. Fergus Russell Conway, a Dubliner who recently completed the masters programme in space studies told us that he made Guinness Pie, colcannon, coddle and a vegetarian option for his culture night- on his own. In 5 hours. No pressure then!

But the week so far has been incredible. After 1 and a half days of orientations and introductions, the programme began in earnest on Monday night at the official SSP15 Opening Ceremony. TeamIreland proudly walked beneath the Tricolour at the ‘Flags of Our Nation’ entrance parade. John Connolly, Director of SSP15 announced our country as ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ bellowed across the auditorium. It was a proud moment, and the first inkling for me that I was part of something truly special.  This was also the night that I finally met my first female astronaut, the humble and inspiring Ohio local, NASA Astronaut, Sunita Williams, more affectionately known as ‘Suni’.  In her keynote speech, she advised us on how to approach the summer ahead, “Get to the starting line, be prepared, ask the hard questions, do the right thing. Own up, apologise, admit.’ And she concluded with, ‘Remember this: you are working for the people on this planet’.  James Free, Director at NASA Glenn Research centre (partners with Ohio University in hosting this year’s SSP15) reminded us of Ohio’s rich heritage in aviation, starting with the Wright Brothers, and boasting the highest number of NASA astronauts per state including Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and of course Suni.  Prof. Dennis Irwin, Dean of Russ College of Engineering at Ohio University and host of SSP15, told us of his close relationship with ISU for over 20 years – ‘I finally met people who think like me. To all participants of SSP15, Space will never be a lonely pursuit again”. Co-founder of ISU and founder of X Prize, Peter Diamandis told us, ‘Go follow your passion. Be brave. Be bold. I wish you the pleasure of changing your life and supercharging your passion’.  And the night continued with a reception at the Baker Centre Ballroom and the launch of a commemorative seasonal brew “Rye of Jupiter’ from local brewer Jackie O’s.

Team Ireland with NASA Astronaut Sunita (Suni) Williams
Team Ireland with NASA Astronaut, (L to R) Orla Punch, Hugh Byrne, NASA Astronaut Sunita (Suni) Williams, Niamh Shaw, James McCreight, Jonathan Faull

And then it began. SSP15. Lectures on space law, business & entrepreneurship, policy, satellites, microgravity, orbital mechanics and space. And team projects selection. And field trips. Always about space brought to us by varied specialists in their field of expertise of space flown in especially from all over the world. And evening lectures from Bob Richards, Co-founder of ISU and founder of Moon Express, and Prof. Jeff Hoffman, NASA Astronaut who spoke about the 1993 mission on the Endeavour Space Shuttle to capture and repair the Hubble Telescope. We were fortunate to also have Prof. Hoffman lecture us, and he was a particular favourite for many participants- apart from the fact that we were within breathing distance of a man who fixed the Hubble Telescope and had 5 missions aboard the Space Shuttle under his belt, his lectures were particularly fascinating. He told us about the radiation in Space, its effects on spacecraft, about microgravity. Someone asked him if he ever worried about the amount of radiation that he had been exposed to during all those missions. He said that he gets checked every year at NASA, but did remember one night aboard the space shuttle during a solar storm, when a gamma ray ‘pinged’ through his brain- he said it was like fireworks going off behind his eyes, and then he started to chuckle as he remembered that that night’s rest was pretty psychedelic, as the gamma rays continued to shower onto the shuttle, through the spacecraft and through his body too.

Professor Jeff Hoffman lecture (Credit Wendy Mensink SSP15)
Professor Jeff Hoffman’s last lecture. (Photo Credit: Wendy Mensink, SSP15)

Prof. Hoffman is a true inspiration- he’s a great communicator, incredibly intelligent and magnificently humble. He sat with us every night at breakfast, dinner and lunch, and answered every question we asked.

I have to be careful not to get too used to this. Miss the moments that become my life stories. Like this one: We had movie night on Wednesday and once it got dark, the IT team put up a mobile screen and projector and we all watched ‘Interstellar’ on the grass under stars. Like me, it’s a favourite for a lot of us. I looked up to the dark sky above us, as Matthew McConaughey’s character takes off, that great rumbling soundtrack under the action, excellently realized under Chris Nolan’s astute direction. Helping us all to imagine what it would be like at the moment of launch, the thrust and power, the force on our bodies of travelling at 11km/sec. And I looked to my right. And Prof. Hoffman was sitting there, just watching the movie, like every other person. And I thought to myself ‘He’s been up there. In Space. And I’m lying on the grass watching Interstellar with one of the 500 people who have EVER lived who have seen the Earth from a distance’.

Director, John Connolly was right – SSP15 is going to change my life.

Class of SSP 2015 (Photo Credit Shripathi Hadigal 2015)
Class of SSP 2015 (Photo Credit: Shripathi Hadigal 2015)

Dr. Niamh Shaw, a performer, scientist and engineer, is passionate about awakening people’s curiosity. Formerly a full-time academic and published author in peer-reviewed journals she embarked on a career which merges science, art, technology and humanity and is currently the Artist in Residence at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork. Niamh regularly contributes popular science/tech related topics on national TV and radio, including TV3’s Late Lunch Live for Science Foundation Ireland, as well as speaking publicly at events including TEDxUCDTrailblazery (2013), Space Expo (Trinity College), Festival of Curiosity (Space Tourist 2014; Curious Tales with Dara O’Briain, 2013).

Niamh regularly visits schools and career events to act as role models in STEM careers and the empowerment of women in business. She hosted the 2014 Engineers Ireland ExcellenceAwards and made a series of ‘STEM careers in Space’ videos for Science Foundation Ireland as part of their SmartFutures series. She was recently listed in Ireland’s Top 38 Talented women in Technology 2014.

Her most recent science art performance,’To Space’, funded by Science Foundation Ireland (in partnership with CIT BCO) & The Arts Council of Ireland about Irelands involvement in Space, premiered at Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival and will be presented at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August this year, supported by Culture Ireland. Other science art work includes ‘Speaking with Plants‘ (Botanic Gardens 2014), ‘My Place in Space’ (Festival of Curiosity 2014). She co-founded TATSOI, who made ‘That’s About The Size Of It’ & IN SIGHT OF EUREKA as part of an artist in residency at Festival of Curiosity.

She is currently attending the ISU’s annual Space Studies Programme 2015 in Ohio, in partnership with NASA Glenn Centre.

She recently presented her work at European Geosciences Assembly in Vienna and has been invited to present at the 66th International Astronautical Conferencein Jerusalem and at the European Planetary Science Congress in Nantes later this year, on the collaborative form of making ‘To Space’.

 She performs weekly with The Craic Pack Comedy Improv & long form improv troupe The Cardinals. she now brings these improv skills to scientists and academics as part of Straight Talking Science, a specialised communications workshop to enhance public engagement skills in association with UCD Science Expression and The Gaiety School of Acting.

Niamh’s work in Science Art has been supported by The Arts Council of IrelandCultureIrelandScience Foundation IrelandESERO IrelandEuropean Space AgencyThe Festival of Curiosity,  CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory CorkDublin City of Science 2012Arts@CERNMAKE 2011Show in A Bag 2011The SPACE Programme 2011 and Dublin City Council Drama Bursary2011.

 She is a member of Engineers Ireland and the Institute of Physics. She has written for national press including The Irish Times and has guest blogged on Dart of Physics and Science Calling.

She is curious, always.

Follow her on Twitter @niamhiepoos