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Themes - Science

Roberta Bondar

Photograph of Roberta Bondar

(1945-)

Astronaut

Source


Research scientist in neurology and the first Canadian woman in space

Roberta Bondar is perhaps best known as the first Canadian woman in space. However, she is also a distinguished researcher in the field of neurology.

Bondar was born in Sault Ste-Marie, Ontario, in 1945, the younger of two children. From an early age she was fascinated by the world of science. She enjoyed receiving such things as chemistry sets as gifts, and by the age of seven was conducting experiments in a basement laboratory built by her father. Roberta was equally captivated by science fiction: she imagined herself as part of the Flash Gordon stories she read and listened to on the radio, tried to contact beings from outer space on her radio set, and explored her neighbourhood as an "astronaut" (accompanied by her older sister). She dreamed of becoming a real astronaut, avidly following the American space program through pictures and clippings sent to her by an aunt living in Florida.

Bondar excelled both academically and athletically during her school years. A high school science project led to summer employment studying the spruce budworm. This in turn led to studies in agriculture and zoology at the University of Guelph, from which she graduated with a BSc in 1968. She went on to attend the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto for graduate studies, ultimately obtaining a doctorate in neurobiology in 1974. Bondar then went on to medical school at McMaster University, graduating in 1977; she pursued her interests in neurology during her internship, and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1981 as a specialist in that field. She conducted research at Tufts Medical Centre in Boston, and at Toronto Western Hospital, before joining the McMaster University faculty as an Assistant Professor in 1982.

It was at this time that Bondar's long-cherished dream of exploring space became a real possibility. In 1983, the National Research Council of Canada announced the formation of the Canadian space program, and invited applications from those wishing to become astronauts. She had her application package in the mail almost immediately, and spent the next few months enduring a battery of interviews. In December of that year she learned that she was one of six people, chosen from a field of over four thousand applicants, who would begin training to become the first Canadian astronauts. As the only female in the group, she received even more scrutiny than her fellow candidates.

There followed many years of intense training and preparation, as well as delays. After the Challenger disaster in 1986, it was uncertain whether or not the space shuttle program would even continue. During her training, Bondar was offered the chance to stay on board the Mir space station, in order to participate in a study on the long-term effects of weightlessness on women. She declined the opportunity, however, as the Russian space program's interest in her was not for her abilities as a scientist, but rather as a female subject for experiments. Bondar had to learn to work aboard the shuttle, which had been designed for male occupants. She also had to make the decision to put off having a family in order to maintain an active role in the space program.

After a long wait, in 1990 Bondar learned that she would go into space as a payload specialist with the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission, on board Space Shuttle Discovery. (A payload specialist is a professional in the physical or life sciences or a technician skilled in operating shuttle-unique equipment). She and the other crew members had to wait a further two years for the launch of Mission STS-42, on January 22, 1992. She spent eight days in space, conducting numerous experiments and photographing the earth's surface, before returning on January 30. (She wrote of the experience in her book Touching the earth.)

On returning from space, Bondar retired as an astronaut to devote further time to her research. She also began spending more time on her pursuit of photography, going so far as to enroll in a professional course. Inspired by her experiences in viewing the earth from space to further explore the planet from the ground, she began the project of photographing all forty-one of Canada's national parks. The results were gathered into a book and museum exhibit, entitled Passionate vision.

Bondar has received numerous honours during her career, including the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, the NASA Space Medal, twenty-two honorary degrees, and induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. In addition to her professional career, she is interested in a variety of outdoor pursuits such as cycling, hiking, and roller-blading; she also holds a private pilot's license.

Resources

Bondar, Roberta. — Neurofibrillar and neurofilamentous changes in goldfish Carassiusauratus L. in relation to temperature. — Ottawa : National Library of Canada, 1976. — 3 microfiches. — (Canadian theses on microfiche). — PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 1974

_____. — Passionate vision : discovering Canada's national parks. — Toronto : Douglas & McIntyre, 2000. —175 p.

_____. — "Spacelog STS42 - Discovery". — If you love this country : fifteen voices for a united Canada.  — Toronto : Penguin Books, 1995. — P. 1-9. — Title on added t.p.: Pour l'amour de ce pays : 15 voix pour un Canada uni

_____. — Touching the earth.  — Toronto : Key Porter Books, 1994.  — 144 p.

Canadian Space Agency [online]. — [Cited June 19, 2001]. — Access : www.space.gc.ca

Destiny in space [videorecording]. — Producer, Graeme Ferguson. — Mississauga : IMAX Corporation, 1994. —1 cassette, 40 min., 13 mm.  — Col. — Originally in 15/70 IMAX format

John F. Kennedy Space Centre - STS-42 Shuttle Mission [online].  — NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). — [Cited June 19, 2001]. — Access : www-pao.ksc.nasa.gov/kscpao/shuttle/missions/sts-42/mission-sts-42.html

"Roberta Bondar". — Canadian newsmakers 1997. — Toronto : Gale Canada, 1998. — P. 70-73

Webb, Michael. — Roberta Bondar : leading science into space. — Mississauga : Copp Clark Pitman Ltd., 1993. — 28 p.

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