Canadian doctor to join Virgin Galactic research space crew

Dr. Shawna Pandya, a Brandon, M., Edmonton, MD, physician and space scientist, is seeing a lifelong dream come true: going to space.

“I will be flying to space with Virgin Galactic in their new Delta Class spaceship with Kellie Gerardi and Dr. Norah Patten from Ireland as early as 2026,” Pandya said.

She earned a degree in neuroscience from the University of Alberta, studied medicine and received her master’s degree from the International Space University in France. Since then, Pandya has worked as a medical advisor to several aerospace, medical and technology companies.

“You work in very international, interdisciplinary teams. I’ve worked with flight surgeons, physiologists and biomedical engineers. And to come full circle from those early masters student days to flying payloads myself is a dream come true.”

Dr. Shawna Pandya tests a novel biomonitoring device in 0g during the 2019 IIAS microgravity campaign in collaboration with Isansys, Stark Industries and the National Research Council of Canada.

Thanks to: IIAS

This mission is a collaboration between Virgin Galactic and the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), where Pandya is director of space medicine.

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IIAS has been pushing for space and microgravity as the next big research lab, Pandya said, especially through commercial spaceflight.

“Traditionally, the path to becoming an astronaut in space has been through government space agency selections, like the Canadian Space Agency and NASA. In Canada, we’re small but mighty. We’ve had four CSA selections, which is really exciting, but this just creates a whole new path to space,” she explained.

“Suborbital space travel has begun – figuratively and literally.

“This is a new mission profile,” Pandya said. “It’s a same-day mission. You go up and down. You have a very focused period in the zero-G environment where you can do your science. You have to be very well-trained, very good at dealing with the dynamics of the zero-G environment and be ready to perform.”

Click to play video: 'Virgin Galactic launches 2nd commercial space flight'

Virgin Galactic launches second commercial space flight

Pandya has advised on missions and flown 10 zero-G campaigns, most of which were research flights, but this is her first time in space.

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The three research astronauts are women.

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“It’s not what we started out doing; it’s just that we have the years of experience working together, we’ve flown together in zero-G (gravity), we’ve worked together in operations for so long, we know each other really well and just that caliber of excellence and that standard that we hold ourselves to. Norah and Kellie really embody that and I’m so proud to fly with them,” Pandya told Global News.

Dr. Shawna Pandya prepares crewmate Kellie Gerardi for spaceflight as medical lead for the IIAS-01 mission.

Thanks to: Virgin Galactic

This mission also marks a Canadian first. Pandya is the first female commercial astronaut from that country to be named.

“We’ve only had four female Canadian astronauts so far, including myself,” Pandya added. “Women are still way outnumbered when it comes to astronauts. They’re only 11-12 percent. This is how we help change that percentage and lead the way and keep the door open for future explorers, future female astronauts and future researchers.”

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Click to play video: 'Edmonton space scientist named to Virgin Galactic research team'

Edmonton space scientist named to Virgin Galactic research team

This is the second research mission that IIAS has flown with Virgin Galactic. In November 2023, the crew tested how fluids behaved in low gravity to gather information about future medical technologies and life support systems.

“It’s an experiment where you put science into practice: you find out what data is really interesting and then optimize your payload to collect larger amounts of data,” Pandya said.

Dr. Shawna Pandya during an aerobatic flight during Project PoSSUM 1502 ground school.

Thanks to: Dr. Aaron Persad/IIAS/Project PoSSUM

She worked with American Gerardi on an earlier mission, where Pandya was the principal investigator for a continuous glucose monitor suitable for use in space.

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“We know that longer missions in space can predispose astronauts to insulin resistance and prediabetic states,” she said. “We just don’t know how quickly that happens. So the work we’ve done, first taking the continuous glucose monitor to parabolic flight and then to suborbital flight, is really a world first, and that’s incredibly exciting.”

It could also create opportunities for people who would otherwise be excluded, Pandya explains.

“From the perspective of the government space agency, diabetes used to be a disqualifier for spaceflight. But now, proving the spaceworthiness of the continuous glucose monitor and its ability to withstand the G-loads of launch and landing and the weightless environment is another way to democratize access to space.”

Dr. Shawna Pandya at Meteor Crater, Arizona, during a 2019 planetary geology course with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences.

Thanks to: IIAS

Pandya believes commercial spaceflight helps on that front, too. She says human spaceflight started as a technological and political confrontation, and involved military pilots. With the International Space Station, Pandya says, it became more collaborative, involving scientists, engineers and pilots.

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“Now, with the next era of space and increased access to space, we want to see everyone,” she said. “We really believe that space is for everyone. We believe it’s for the engineers like Nora, the doctors like myself, the mission leaders like Kellie, but ultimately it’s for the storytellers, the artists, the entrepreneurs.

“We’ve seen in the past that when you give people a platform, they will amaze you with their creativity and ingenuity, so this is really a whole new era in human exploration.”

Dr. Shawna Pandya tests the Final Frontier Design EVA (extra-vehicular activity) spacesuit in a gravity compensation system at the Canadian Space Agency’s High Bay during the 2019 Project PoSSUM gravity compensation course.

Thanks to: Project PoSSUM

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Emily Mertz

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