'Living in a tin can': Edmonton doctor on out-of-this-world mission in Utah

Shawna Pandya doesn’t need a rocket flight to experience life on Mars.

'We're essentially living in a tin can'

Shawna Pandya is acting as commander on Mars simulation mission in Utah. She is a physician who has long been interested in space exploration. (Doug Campbell)

Shawna Pandya doesn't need a rocket flight to experience life on Mars.

Pandya is among a growing contingent of researchers working on new technology that would allow humans to colonize the martian world.

The Edmonton-based physician is serving as an astronaut on the red planet from the heart of the desert lands of the western United States. Pandya is acting as the commander of a 16 day mission at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah.

The mission officially began on Jan. 18. She will "return to Earth" on Feb. 3. 

"We're going to be living real life on fake mars," Pandya said in an interview Friday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"We're essentially living in a tin can."

'Going outside would essentially kill you' 

The research station simulates life on Mars so researchers can study the science needed for human exploration of the planet.

"We're locked in, not locked in," she said. 

"You have to suit up to go outside because going outside would essentially kill you so that's the biggest adjustment." 

Shawna Pandya is an astronaut candidate and physician based in Edmonton. (Photo by Ross Lockwood)

Pandya and her crew will be contending with all the complications of life in a hostile environment. The atmosphere on Mars is barren and deadly. Radiation is high. Oxygen is virtually nonexistent.

Her water supply will be limited. Her meals will be freeze-dried or grown in an enclosed greenhouse on site. Communication with Earth will be limited. 

"In the past we've grown tomatoes and basil and thyme so there is a little bit of an opportunity for fresh food on Mars," she said. 

"And then you also maintain the time delays with Earth so, at its maximum that's a one way 20 minute communication delay, so you can imagine that nothing like phone calls or Skype or instant messaging is possible." 

This is Pandya's second mission at the research station and part of a growing resume in space research and bioastronautics. 

Pandya, who grew up in Sherwood Park, and earned two degrees at the University of Alberta, is an advanced diver, skydiver, pilot-in-training, and Fellow of the Explorers' Club.

In 2015 she successfully completed Scientist-Astronaut Candidate training with Project PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) and was part of the first crew to test a commercial spacesuit in zero-gravity;

She most recently completed an underwater mission with Nautical Experiments in Physiology, Technology & Underwater Exploration (NEPTUNE) for scientific research.

She was selected as part of a five-member team of scientists that took part in the NEPTUNE research mission at the Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Fla. 

The mission in October kept the scientists underwater for five days to study the effects on the human body.

Pandya's ongoing mission in Utah is a collaboration with Mars Academy USA. Her crew will be conducting studies on psychology and nutrition and doing medical simulations to test new protocols and other technologies. 

Pandya has dreams of becoming a physician in space and this mission will be the perfect test of her skills, she said. 

"We need to practice for hard environments like space because you don't want the first time you go to a different planet to be the first time you practice something," she said. 

"What's really exciting is these technologies also have a potential benefit for extreme and remote environments here on Earth. 

"We have a lot to achieve on this mission but we're really excited."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.


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