Dr Niamh Shaw is a remarkable woman. She’s a scientist, an engineer, an artist and she has an extraordinary story – she’s set herself a lifetime goal of getting into space. In a bonus podcast edition, here she is talking her dream to make it into space. She also shares some project management tips that have come in handy for her along her journey.
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Transcript from Episode 109 “Project Management Skills Needed for Space Exploration” with Dr Niamh Shaw
“Good morning everybody, how are we all doing? Are we good? Great. I have had a chat with one or two of you and you are my kind of people. I like project managers. I think I like the way your minds work. And I have already picked up a few tips that have been shared with me about some of the things you do. I could give you like my whole story about my space adventure so far but two hours later you might just kind of go “Please, stop talking” because I am very passionate about it.
What I have done instead is that I kind of just looked at what you guys could get out of what I have been trying to do and I kind of hit three or four points that I have learned along the way that I think might match a little bit about your sector. We will do a couple of group exercises in communications because I am a massive communicator. And with my background in engineering and science and the arts, really what ties everything together is communication. That took me a very long time to understand and figure out that triangle.
What I do now is I go and I have lots of different adventures around the space. I really do want to go into space. I am not just saying that for the crack. It’s come from a childhood dream and I went on this quest where I got two degrees in Engineering and a Ph.D. in Science.
“…trying to make the impossible possible”
In all of that, there was a creative part of me that was oppressed. And I also wanted to be a writer and performer. And I kind of questioned why everybody else seems to know what they want to do with their lives and I seemed to never know. I wanted to kind of do everything. And making one choice was always difficult. And the older I got, what I realized was that I hadn’t yet found the thing that I really want to do. When I found it, I did not let that go. And that’s really the core of why I am devoting the rest of my life to doing it. Because the second I figured out what my purpose in life is, everything changed.
My work ethic changed, my passion changed and I started to kind of to succeed in the area that is technically non-existent. And I am genuinely trying to make the impossible possible. And it all began with this image for me in our Encyclopedia Britannica, long before there was the internet. Dad would get the monthly subscription for the Encyclopedia Britannica, from the book club.
I can remember that in the children’s encyclopedia seeing that image. For those of you that don’t know this image, it was taken in 1968 and launched to the world on Christmas Eve. And it was a part of the many missions that went back and forth to the Moon which ultimately got us to get two people to land on the Moon on July 20th, 1969, which has celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.
And as a child, I didn’t realize the significance of it but I remember and it has never left me that notion that I had decided that I wanted to stand on the Moon and see the Earth in its entirety that way. In the last couple of years as I have been involved more and more with the space community, I realize that that’s a very special point of view and astronauts that have seen it have significantly changed their opinion about the world and our place in the world as a species. It’s known as the overview effect.
They all like, they are not necessarily religious people, but they all have some sort of realization of how fragile we are on this planet and that we really need to work together and that there are no boundaries from space. It was really a little bit like you guys in the project management, when you are really close to something, you can kind of forget the bigger picture and I found that really interesting. I think we are at the phase in life where it wouldn’t be any harm for us to kind of see that again.
Walking on the Moon
But now we’re at the stage where we have been, we’ve seen two people on the moon and there are missions to return to the moon. I went to launch last summer in Baikonur. I found the whole thing extremely moving because it’s something I want to do but also because it’s incredible to think that there are three people on top of something so incredibly dangerous in terms of the math, it’s equivalent to, you know, recruiting an insect, like an ant and spending like five years training them to complete a Formula 1 race. That’s how insane it is to get somebody to launch a rocket.
You have to keep reminding yourself that there are three people on top of that. We are at the place now that’s every day, you know, sending three people up into International Space Station which is a spacecraft that orbits Earth all the time since 2000. It is nearly 20 years now at this stage. It just happens and rockets are launched every couple of weeks to send up that I kind of call Tesco delivery or they’re called payloads but they are essentially like supplies and equipment. That’s every day but it’s not every day, it is incredibly dangerous.
We forget because something happens regularly, there is a thing in the space industry called normalization of deviance. You get so used to doing something while you kind of forgets the safety issues and the risks involved. And that’s when mistakes happen and things go wrong and that’s why we had the Columbia disaster and the Challenger disaster of the space shuttle. You have to say on top of it all the time and every single moment of launch of one human being is extremely dangerous but we kind of take that for granted. How do we shift that focus and make people remember how vulnerable we are? And that’s the kind of the reason why I’m doing what I am doing. The more I get involved in the space sector, the more that I see things like that more urgently I feel to do it and using my skills as a communicator and somebody who’s passionate about science. It’s also about sharing space, sharing science and technology, getting people curious about science and technology, beginning relationship for people who feel that science and technology isn’t for them and also inspiring them to think outside the box and realize like “Are you happy with your life? Are you actually doing what you think you were destined to do in life?”
For some reason, I believe I was put on this planet to go to space as a citizen and an artist and experience space from a very vulnerable point of view. A new point of view that reminds us that it is really difficult and dangerous to put someone in space and that we are nothing on our own. We need a group collective to make anything happen because everything about space and all the work that you do is about gathering teams of people together. You don’t just make that sudden realization overnight, it starts with remembering when I saw that picture what it meant to me, just a part of my project that I was doing and not letting that go. That was in 2011. I have been slowly walking forward ever since. I was having a conversation after conversation and I get more and more comfortable with that. A massive part for me in overcoming and allowing myself to dream big was really looking at my perception of what failure is and where it was in my life.
When you are somebody who was doing well in school, laminated my copies, I used to record every time I was going to bed and work out my average monthly plan of going to bed. I’m a result person and I’m somebody that got a great sense of pride by my exam results. So for me, it was all about getting 90 or 95 percent, just as high achievers always do. Then you are in a rehearsal room where that’s the worst possible thing that could happen because you are afraid to even step forward because you don’t know the answer. But the great thing about having a creative mindset is that you can’t have the answer if you have the answer there is no point in doing it.
You have to keep trying and then after you try, you can figure out “Oh that is the best idea.” So, I really had to look at what failure was and what success was. I hadn’t really thought about my own perception of success. I knew what people’s successes of me were which was really my parents are really proud that I’ve got my two degrees in engineering and my Ph.D. in science. That’s a success if that is something that you are really passionate about. I love information, I love learning but unfortunately for me the subject matter I wasn’t completely passionate about.
I am an engineer, I like figuring things out, I like troubleshooting things. I just didn’t find a subject that I was interested in. As a performer, I was performing every week using improvisation and improvisation is all about embracing failure and just getting on the stage and trusting another person on stage with you to find a scene and coming up with something funny. And if you go in with any sort of preconceived idea or plan, it doesn’t work. It becomes like a cabaret show. You have to embrace failure.
So I looked at the definition of what failure was and what success was. And in the dictionary, failure is defined as the absence of success. So it’s not tangible, it is actually just the way you see things. It really made me think of how much I have been living my life based on this objective definition of what success was. I look at success and failure differently. I realized that you are only really failing when you are not trying. I saw it as just kind of the scale. Up until my early 40s this desire of mine to be a part of space, I have been failing badly because I haven’t even moved one step forward.
If I just go in public with it by making theatre shows, by making family events, by even talking with people here today, I’m spreading the word and I am actually walking one step forward. It’s the days that I let the fear get me, it’s the days that I am too afraid to do anything, these are the days that I’m failing. And what’s emerged from you know, it’s been five years now, what’s emerged from the whole thing is I’m finding the difficulty the most interesting part of the experience. I think the purpose of what I am trying to do is to take it all in, be afraid every day, be terrified every day but not give up on the actual goal until the goal changes, maybe the goal will shift, to be completely honest for every single moment of that.
And it’s incredibly difficult but I think that is the point of it because I waited far too long. I just don’t see the reason why I shouldn’t try anymore because I wasted so much time pretending that I didn’t want to do this. What can possibly go wrong? I mean I can’t see what can possibly go wrong except that I will never fear that I bet on myself and that I didn’t leave my mark or my legacy in life and that’s the most important thing. I waited for 40 years because I allowed myself to find by other people’s perceptions of success.
I didn’t really think what was my perception of success. My perception of success is to leave my mark, to do something of value to society and make us see ourselves differently in some way. Which is what essentially all art is effectively good art. For you, how did I figure all that out? The first about space that is amazing that I found hugely liberating and it really helped me not to be afraid because I started thinking about our place in it all. We know we are in Ireland today but you don’t think about your place on the map of Ireland for every living second. Today, we’re in the Royal College of Physicians, those that have found it.
You know, if somebody asked us to draw this room, we would know how to draw this room. You kind of know how to draw the street, you kind of know two or three streets around it and then it kind of gets vague. And as you zoom out, you go “Well I’m in Dublin.” and you take that for granted. Then you know the part of Europe. Most people keep that in mind and then they kind of stop thinking about really where are you. You are on a planet. The planet is not still. It is a lot of what you guys do, you have to have the bigger picture all the time like. So, we are on Earth all the time and the planet is orbiting, about itself every day, it does one full revolution.
And then it’s also orbiting around the Sun. It’s never still, we feel like it’s still, but it’s easy for us to lumen this room. And maybe I know I’m in Dublin but other than that I don’t think about it. One impact that it has is that it makes you start thinking about where you are in the overall scheme of things. We know that we’re part of the solar system because we’ve been told that in geography. We are one of eight planets orbiting our sun which is a pretty insignificant star. These are our neighbouring planets that are all existing right now and a lot of them also have planets orbiting their star.
We know that we’re part of the galaxy, thanks to Galileo. And this is where the number goes insane because we are just one galaxy and we are that one little dot on the bottom middle corner. And that galaxy is a hundred thousand light-years in diameter. The light-years had to be invented because the distance has gotten so insane. And we are not the only galaxy, our local galaxies are here but we are grouped into a cluster called the Virgo supercluster and those superclusters are grouped into further supercluster and there are 55 superclusters within the observable universe, the edge of which is 46.6 billion light-years from us here right now in Royal College of Physicians in Kildare Street in Dublin.
You can zoom as much or as little as you want, but what I found amazing with that is that it made me feel about “What am I thinking, I am only like a blip, why do I stress and worry about what people think and what am I gonna do my life?” Just do your best, get up every day and do your best. And want and want and leave your mark. And that’s the kind of life that I have chosen.
There is a lot of sacrifices with that, financially I had to completely change the way I live. I had to simplify, but I have to, by the time whenever my day comes, I have to know that I lived every single day to the max and that I did my best. I can’t go back to the person who was in denial. I had a moment of clarity and if I didn’t act on that moment about embracing the life of space I would know that for the rest of my life I had a chance to live the life that I wanted and I was too scared to do anything about it. That was something that really set me free.
Surrounding yourself with talented people
The other thing is about hanging out with people that were far more talented than I was, that were far more capable than I was and trusting that it’s okay to be the weakest person in a room. In fact, I seek it out all the time now because I know that I can learn from people and whenever I can contribute is fine but ultimately it’s about that. It started with me working with the Blackrock Castle Observatory and then they exposed me to the whole world of the European Space Agency who I work with regularly now and they support me in terms of some of the communications work that I do and the show and the events and all the different promotional weeks around science.
And it was like the day I walked in the door of the Blackrock Castle Observatory is the best way to finish like that “Sliding Doors” movie with Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s like it’s unbelievable that you just change your perspective and you suddenly see that all these things are available to you and the only person that was stopping me was myself and I just need to be a little bit braver. And out of that talk about being challenged, I got a scholarship from Space Agency to attend the Space Program which is run every year. It’s a graduate program, it’s a nine weeks residency program for people who are interested in space, usually, people in their 20s, recently out of college.
And I was there as an artist at least 20 years older than all of them. Talk about being out of your comfort zone, I never knew what was Lean before, I never knew what a Giphy was before. I know all about Slack now and all about all these different software things and they brought me up to speed. And now I feel like I am on their level. But there were all the people that were far more ahead of me, working in the space sector, who didn’t even doubt for a second that they were going to be part of space and want to become an astronaut.
Geologists focusing on the Martian landscape and astro-biologists, these were the people who are interested in the life sciences but focusing on the science of Earth, anything that can exist off Earth. And out of that suddenly I was like “Oh my gosh.” I found myself inside the desert, being involved in a simulated Mars mission. This was a mission and there’s a research centre hundreds and hundreds of miles from nowhere in the Utah desert where you go in and you live as if you are on Mars for up to two weeks at a time. And the purpose of that is to give these people an opportunity to test their skills and take samples.
So every time you go outside you would wear a spacesuit and you had limited water, limited food, and limited power. And it was really challenging but I said “yes” to it. Because you have to say “yes” to things because if you say “no” to things you shut them down. And that is actually primary as we say tenet of improvisation is to say “yes” and then you are building on it. And out of that, a better solution will come. That’s why I said “yes” to this.
So, these people are far more specialized than me, they have all been in the field lots of times, they had all the equipment, I had to go and spend a fortune and buy things like sleeping bags. They had everything you could possibly want. And this became my life, living like this, you know and mud and not showering for two weeks, eating freeze-dried cabbage, and freeze-dried everything, a highly salty diet, wearing really heavy gear outside, climbing lots of steep inclines and somebody who had a fear of heights it was tremendously challenging. But by the end of it, I no longer had a fear of fights, I didn’t know everything about myself, but also about our planet and the amount of water that we waste.
I just keep going now. I have been to launches and I just keep saying “yes” to things. I am at the phase now where it’s really challenging but for a completely different reason because I really have to think about that project. I’m sure you, project managers know this better than I do. I have to think of, I know what my dream is, I know what the goal is, but the actual tasks and the detail is still blurry to me, like how am I going to make this happen because so far I’ve depended a lot on myself and now it needs to be much bigger and I need to have a bigger plan. Particularly in terms of financial infrastructure. So that’s my challenge and that’s what I’ve been focusing on this year – less on the adventures and more about being brave enough to ask for help and to really think about how can I make my structure better. Those are the things that I’ve learned along the way and improv is at the core of that. I think if I haven’t been a performer for 13 years of improv, I don’t think I ever would have set myself free to do that.