What would it be like to live on Mars? Dr Niamh Shaw has a good idea

15 Jun 2017

Niamh Shaw on the fifth mission outside of the MDRS as part of Crew 173. Image: Niamh Shaw

After years of dreaming about space, Dr Niamh Shaw is now aiming to get there, starting out with some training in Martian isolation.

Elton John once sang: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids”, but organisations such as NASA are already drawing up plans to make sure that isn’t the case.

Decades after humans last set foot on solid ground that wasn’t on Earth, serious efforts are now underway to send crews of humans to Mars, possibly within the next decade.

Getting ourselves to Mars

While intentions vary between state agencies such as the China National Space Administration and private enterprises such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, all parties will need to overcome some major obstacles.

There are the obvious problems, for example, how can we create a sustainable environment for humans to breathe, eat and survive on the barren land of Mars? But there is also another crucial need: an ability to survive isolation.

When the first crew, or crews, arrive at the Red Planet, the likelihood is that they will be the only humans on Mars for quite some time, all packed in tight conditions that will push their bodies to the limit, both physically and mentally.

That is why endeavours such as the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), hosted by The Mars Society, aim to recruit eager volunteers to replicate – as close as possible – the living conditions that would be experienced on the planet.

One such volunteer was Irish engineer, science performer and Inspirefest 2017 speaker Dr Niamh Shaw, who is aiming to do her eight-year-old self proud by fulfilling her dream of going to space.

‘I found I was tougher than I thought it was’

As part of the six-person crew of Team Prima led by Dr Michaela Musilova, Shaw was Crew 173’s journalist and artist in residence, documenting their time in some very enclosed spaces, something she was initially worried about.

“I didn’t know if this would be my bag and I wondered would I have the mettle to be one of the first crews to go to Mars or the moon to set up provisions for people coming ahead,” Shaw said to Siliconrepublic.com.

“I would have said before this experience that I’m not sure I’m strong for that, but afterwards I found I was tougher than I thought it was.”

She recalls enjoying helping her fellow crew members to send messages home to their families about their experiences during the isolation experiment, but also promoting their missions and ideas to the wider world.

Astronauts just the tip of the iceberg

When she’s not thinking about how she would deal with life on Mars, Shaw spends much of her time using the arts to bring science to a much wider audience.

One such endeavour is A Hand in Space, a show that looks to shine a light on the men and women who make the many missions to space possible for both the spacecraft and the astronauts travelling out of Earth’s atmosphere.

“It just struck me since I started on the space path: there’s so many people involved in space and so few of them are astronauts, so it became interesting to me about the people that made missions happen,” she said.

“An astronaut is like the tip of an iceberg, but there’s this massive amount of ice that goes way below the surface of the waterline.”

Aside from just showcasing the people behind the rockets – such as coding legends Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper – it shows those eager to get into the space sector that it isn’t just limited to the likes of Neil Armstrong, Mae Jemison, and so on.

Niamh Shaw performing To Space

Dr Niamh Shaw performing ‘To Space’ in Edinburgh in 2015. Image: Niamh Shaw

Theatre as a medium for science

Theatre, Shaw said, is a fantastic way to get this message across, but it’s important not to get too bogged down in the nitty-gritty of the science, either.

“I think there’s a huge appetite for science to be understood in lots of different ways, like a lecture of science in a theatrical setting,” she adds.

“There’s more and more events like this happening, possibly because we’re at the point where people are Googling stuff for themselves so that they’re more comfortable for information to be presented in non-formal ways.”

While Shaw is someone who straddles the divide between the arts and science, she doesn’t necessarily believe that every scientist should be an expert communicator, at least in the beginning.

Those who advocate for researchers to highlight their findings with better communication often cite the benefits it could bring, in terms of future job or funding prospects.

“If someone is working really hard on a new theory, for example, they may not be the best people to communicate what they’re doing because they’re so deeply ingrained in it because that’s where their minds need to be,” she said.

“But then, there are other people who are skilled at looking at that research and almost finding a way of translating that into everyday language.”

Shaw continued: “There’s a need for both of those people to exist, but for those deeply ingrained [in the research], it would be great when they’re finished that they had some measure of skill to see what other people see and explain it from a different viewpoint.”

Full STEAM ahead

This importance of hearing different viewpoints is the driving factor behind her belief and practice of advocating for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths).

Thankfully, it appears that her and her fellow STEAM advocates’ work is paying off after decades of stigma against women and those from minority backgrounds taking part in these fields.

“I think the value of STEAM has emerged in the last few years because we’re starting to understand that having a cross-disciplinary approach to things is a very valuable tool in all workspaces,” Shaw said.

“I’m seeing more and more of the likes of Accenture that have a good creativity section in its innovation centre [The Dock] and are actively pursuing creatives to be involved.”

Coincidentally, The Dock will play host the free Family Fringe event taking place on 8 July after the main festivities of Inspirefest 2017, where Shaw will offer two performances of My Place In Space for adults and kids alike.

Dr Niamh Shaw will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic