Roberta Bondar flew into space 30 years ago and has never seen Earth the same way again

It’s been 30 years since Roberta Bondar was strapped into a five-point harness on the Space Shuttle Discovery and rose to fame as Canada’s first female astronaut.

But first, she left a tearful farewell recording for her mom, disaster. It was the first time a Canadian had participated in a shuttle launch since the devastating Challenger explosion that killed seven crew members six years earlier.

“For me, being the first was not about breaking records. It was the idea that there was someone who represented strength, bravery and bravery,” Bondar, 76, told Piya CBC Radio’s Chattopadhyay. The Sunday Review.

Bondar joked that people saw her as “brave or crazy”.

There are some things people might not know about Bondar. His name is pronounced BOND-ur, not bond-ARE.

In space, she performed renditions of O Canada as it drifted above planet Earth. And what she saw as she was thrown like a dice in slow motion changed her.

Bondar was the first neurologist in space and helped conduct experiments at the International Microgravity Laboratory. (The Roberta Bondar Foundation)

“In space, tumbling and being at every angle…expand[s] a different perspective,” said Bondar, who now lives in Toronto.

“I like to think about it in times when I’m having peaceful time, especially in the natural world. I think about being away from the planet and how much the planet meant to me.”

Flaming trails in space

Bondar dreamed of space travel since elementary school. She defied her high school guidance counselor – who talked her out of pursuing science studies by saying it was not a subject for girls – and a lot of chances to eventually win a place on the shuttle flight American spacecraft Discovery which took off on January 22, 1992. .

“No one had done any of that. I was really on the tip of the bow of a ship going through rough seas. There was no role model for me in Canada,” Bondar said.

Today, decades later, there are schools in Bondar’s name and a Canadian postage stamp with his face.

“Being the first Canadian woman was a great thing because it was supposedly going to show the diversity of the space program, which is – I don’t want to choke on that – but I’m not sure we have that, yet, ‘ Bondar said.

Bondar inspired future astronaut candidates like Shawna Pandya from Alberta. She said she has been fascinated by the night sky and space travel since childhood. Pandya followed Bondar’s Footsteps, earned a degree in neuroscience and studied medicine before attending the International Space University in France.

“I remember being obsessed with reading about Dr. Bondar’s trajectory. She inspired me in many ways. She was hugely influential in the paths she blazed,” Pandya said.

Despite Bondar’s forays, astronaut recruitment programs don’t reflect Canada’s diversity, still leaning toward military-trained men, according to Bondar.

Bondar works at the International Microgravity Laboratory with American astronaut Steve Oswald on January 22, 1992. (NASA)

NASA has confirmed that 73 women have been to space, about 12% of all people sent there so far.

“We can continue to expect it to grow as astronaut classes become more diverse. Canada’s last astronaut selection was 50/50,” said Stephanie Schierholz, door- main floor of NASA public affairs.

The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on the Soviet Union’s Vostok 6 in 1963. The first American woman in space was Sally Ride, a Californian physicist aboard the Challenger’s STS-7 mission which took off on June 18, 1983.

Currently, NASA’s Artemis program aims to land the first woman on the moon by 2024.

fierce competition

Competition to be selected as an astronaut is fierce and often foreign nationals like Bondar are seen as “occupiers of space”, she said. On board the shuttle, Bondar behaved like any male member of the crew.

Commander Ronald Grabe willingly gave her his bunk or place in the sleeping closet so she wouldn’t have to share with a male crew member.

“He didn’t have to do that. It was the only special treatment I got as a woman,” Bondar said.

And she was in danger of losing her coveted spot on the shuttle when she “made a fuss” about her family’s treatment.

Space Shuttle Discovery lifts off from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on August 30, 1984, beginning its maiden voyage and a spaceflight career that spanned more than 26 years. (NASA)

Bondar’s father had died in 1985. In 1992, only his mother and sister came to see the launch at Cape Canaveral Complex 39-A in Florida. While other astronaut families watched from a room in the assembly tower, Bondar’s family members remained in the public gallery.

They were also denied the privilege of greeting Bondar when she landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California after eight days in orbit.

“The rules were that unless you had a spouse or a dog, no one could greet you. So I wasn’t married. I didn’t have a dog. I had a mother and a sister.”

Bondar urges people to ask ‘why’

At the end, after a fight, Bondar’s mother waved at her, but her sister waved behind the barbed wire.

This moment still stings.

Bondar is adamant that it was her family that supported her, not rocket fuel, that really got her started.

It was a childhood where we asked ourselves: why?

“If we don’t ask these deep questions about what exists…then we’re never going to evolve,” Bondar said.

Payload specialist Bondar holds oat seedlings in front of the video camera aboard Discovery on January 25, 1992. (NASA/Associated Press)

Today, the first neurologist in space has become an avid wildlife photographer. She now studies endangered migratory birds and directs the Roberta Bondar Foundation in Toronto. She says her new mission is to merge art and science in an effort to protect the planet.

“When you look at Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, you see the work that has been done. It captures both art and science. So at some point in our journey, art and science come together. are separated.

“I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do, because scientists have to be creative, otherwise they couldn’t develop ways of looking at things from different perspectives. And artists have to really understand some science.”

She said that in space, it was the absence of the sounds and smells of Earth that she noticed the most. No birdsong. No smell of forest rain. That’s when she says she realized how much Earth really meant to her.

Bondar and the rest of the Discovery mission crew returned to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base in California on January 30, 1992. (Radio Canada)

Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Annie Bender.

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