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Opinion: How life on Mars made me a better citizen of Earth

Dr Niamh Shaw says it took her Mars simulation training for her to realise just how precious life on Earth really is.

Niamh Shaw

AS A CHILD growing up in Dundalk I clearly remember seeing the famous Earthrise image – the iconic photograph of Earth as it had never been seen before taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders in 1968.

One of the most influential photographs of the environmental movement the image depicts Earth’s fragile beauty amid the vastness of space. My reaction was, ‘I want to see that for myself!’ Astronauts talk about earthrise giving them a renewed appreciation for the planet – seeing it as a living, breathing, vulnerable being within the enormity of the universe.

Fast forward to 2017 when I took part in an amazing experience that changed how I live my life and, I believe, made me a better citizen of our beautiful and precious Planet Earth.

For two weeks, in the middle of the high Utah desert in the US, I participated in a simulation experience in the Mars Desert Research Station – replicating what life would be like on the ‘red planet’ – and boy did that bring home to me how good we have it here on Earth.

Life on Mars

Wearing a heavy space suit replica so that I could breathe anytime we ventured outside on Extra Vehicular Activities or EVAs (as Mars’ atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide) was one thing but the limited availability of water was another that really made an impact on me.

We had to use water very sparingly. For example, no showering and only flushing the toilet when absolutely necessary! Eating powdered, pretty tasteless foods was another not so pleasant aspect of the experience.

As a scientist and science communicator, I was already very conscious of the human impact on the Earth’s climate and resources but the Mars simulation experience made it all the more real to me.

The culmination was a realisation of how lucky we are to live on such a beautiful planet that has everything we need for survival.

When I returned home to my apartment in Dublin I was acutely aware of all the ‘stuff’ I had accumulated over the course of my life and how I missed absolutely none of it while I was away. That instigated a gradual but significant de-cluttering and simplifying of my home and life. I began only buying second hand, but good quality, clothes and gradually began to give away books, ornaments, unnecessary furniture to friends, family and charity shops. Essentially, I began to live as sustainably as possible.

Science Week

I’ve been sharing my Mars experience this Science Week as part of the annual event that celebrates science and all it has revealed to us about our blue planet. This year the festival has focussed on ‘Creating Our Future’ – generating a national conversation between the public, the research community and policymakers.

Essentially, encouraging anyone who wishes to share their idea for what researchers in Ireland should explore to create a better future for us all. That spirit of collaboration and working together is key to creating a brighter future. The more ideas, viewpoints and perspectives that are shared the better. We need everyone’s voice to be heard.

One of the science week events I’ve been involved in is ‘Science Week Live!’ – a live-streamed show highlighting the array of activities taking place across Ireland during Science Week 2021.

Transition Year secondary school students from St Louis all girls secondary school in Dundalk and Margaret Aylward Community College in Whitehall, Dublin have worked with me to create the daily magazine style show, testing their journalism and video production skills to get the inside scoop on Science Week 2021.

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The success of ‘Science Week Live!’ has been down to collaboration and learning from each other; an opportunity for the students to learn media and science/climate communication skills from me while I’ve got the inside track on TikTok, SnapChat and the hottest social media trends from them.

Similarly, the success of COP 26, which concludes today, will be determined by the level of collaboration reached by world leaders. We are now at a crucial point in terms of saving the future of the planet and our species.

Reaching new audiences and communicating as effectively as possible about what needs to be done now to minimise global warming has never been more critical. The action that needs to be taken by political and business leaders will only happen if we all, Earth’s citizens, use our voices and demand change. The louder and more urgent that collective voice the better for us all and the future of life on Earth.

Dr Niamh Shaw is a scientist, educator, speaker and writer.  Science Week runs until 14 November, more here.

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Niamh Shaw

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