Science

Roberta Bondar reflects on space flight, nature and the cake she almost didn't have

On January 22, 1992, Dr. Roberta Bondar blasted off on the space shuttle Discovery, becoming the first Canadian woman in space. Since then, she has become a renowned nature photographer and an inspiration to a new generation of Canadian astronauts.

30 years ago, Bondar was the first Canadian woman in space spending 8 days on the shuttle Discovery

Roberta Bondar is seen here at the edge of Lake Elementaita, Kenya, watching for lesser flamingoes. Dr. Bondar celebrates the 30th anniversary of her voyage into space on Jan. 22. (Submitted by Roberta Bondar)

Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut, sits in front of a computer screen with the delicate curvature of Earth hanging in the blackness of space as her background.

It's not a photo she took, but it's a view she remembers well.

"I'd been working so hard for a couple of days," she recalled of her flight on board the space shuttle Discovery in 1992, 30 years ago this week. 

"And [Commander Ronald Grabe] just said, 'Roberta, I'm not gonna let this flight go by with you working as hard as you are without looking out the window.' And so he had me come up to the flight deck."

Down below was the Pacific Ocean, its vastness punctuated by the small islands of Hawaii.

"I must say that it was spectacular."

Bondar is seen with shuttle Discovery pilot Stephen Oswald during her 1992 mission at the International Microgravity Laboratory that studied the effects of microgravity on the human body. (NASA)

Bondar, who was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is reflecting not only on the 30th anniversary of her space flight, but also her time back on Earth working as a nature photographer, something she is passionate about.

She launched aboard Discovery on January 22, 1992.

The tragedy of the 1986 Challenger explosion was still fresh in the public's mind. Even the redesigned spacesuits that came out of the disaster — now a bright orange rather than pale blue — served as a reminder. 

While the danger of space flight is something all astronauts are acutely aware of, it wasn't front of mind for Bondar as she prepared for her launch 30 years ago.

"It was eight o'clock at night, and they wanted us to sign this plethora of photographs, which I thought, 'Why would I do that now? I'll do it when I come back.' And they're going…" she paused and tilted her head and raised her eyebrows.

"So I was supposed to be asleep in my little room, but I was actually dictating a tape to my mother. And that, that sobered me up quite a bit." 

She hadn't even prepared a will, something she did last minute.

WATCH | Bondar talks to Ian Hanomansing about the legacy of her 1st spaceflight: 

Dr. Roberta Bondar celebrates 30 years since her first spaceflight

4 months ago
Duration 6:27
Canada's first female astronaut, Dr. Roberta Bondar, talks to Ian Hanomansing about the legacy of her historic first spaceflight.

Looking up

Walking out to the van that would take the astronauts to launch pad 39A at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, where Discovery was waiting, Bondar remembers looking at the crowd of people who had gathered at who were waving and cheering on the crew of seven. She had been isolated, in quarantine ahead of her flight, and didn't recognize anyone. But then a voice called out from the crowd.

"Eve Savory was there covering it for CBC, and she was holding a Canadian flag, and in one corner she was holding a Girl Guides of Canada flag. And that just was so memorable to me," she said. "I had both hands in the air, just jabbing at the air, just cheering because … it was just a great moment."

WATCH | The National's 1992 report on Dr. Roberta Bondar's flight: 

Roberta Bondar heads into space

4 months ago
Duration 3:10
In 1992, Roberta Bondar blasted into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and The National was there.

Lying on her back in the shuttle ahead of the launch, she remembers a sobering thought.

"When the main engines started, I thought, 'Well, if anything happens, they'll probably name this park in the Soo after me that I used to play at when I was a little girl,'" she said laughing.

Flying high here at home

Among some poignant memories of her STS-42 mission, Bondar remembers a fight for her "dream cake."

When Bondar was young, her mother would make her a special treat.  "I used to eat the 'dream cake' and want to be a spaceman," she recalled.

Ahead of her launch, her mother gathered the NASA-approved ingredients and made it special for her to take aboard. Except another astronaut confused it with his birthday cake, and nearly nabbed her stowed treat from the food locker.

Fortunately, the confusion was soon cleared up, and Bondar was able to eat her special cake while floating far above Earth.

Bondar is seen here aboard Discovery with her mother's dream cake floating in front of her. (Submitted by Roberta Bondar)

Bondar was the first neuroscientist to launch into space, and while she still did some experiments around materials science, her main focus was health sciences, studying things like the effects of microgravity on the human body.

It's something that she continued to work on when she returned to Earth eight days later. 

She didn't want to leave the Canadian Space Agency but did in September 1992. She was never reassigned as a mission specialist, something that she says was "hugely difficult."

Instead, she looked for funding to continue her research on space flight and its effects on the human body, and worked out of both Ryerson University in Toronto and Western University in London, Ont., before her programs were shut down.

Bondar always loved photography, and turned her attention from space down to Earth. She became a professional nature photographer, travelling around the world from the Sahara Desert to the High Arctic, and publishing her photographs in numerous books. 

She soon started The Roberta Bondar Foundation, a not-for-profit organization aimed at educating the public about our fragile planet and the need for conservation efforts.

Most recently she's used her experience as both a photographer and astronaut to launch AMASS (Avian Migration Aerial Surface Space) which looks at the migratory patterns and changes in birds from the perspective of both space and Earth.

Bondar photographing the overwintering area of the endangered whooping crane, near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. (Roberta Bondar)

"It's the three perspectives of avian migration, aerial service and space to look at migratory corridors to try to make people more aware of the habitat requirements of these incredible species," she said. "Once the habitats are gone, these birds will be gone."

During astronaut David Saint-Jacques' 2018 mission to the International Space Station, he was able to photograph Earth and these corridors to contribute to her research. 

Inspiring the next generation

While Bondar was busy readying herself for her foray into space 30 years ago, three-year-old Jenni Sidey-Gibbons was watching closely.

"I remember that my mom really emphasized how important it was that we had this amazing role model in Canada," she said. "With my mom, I made a scrapbook with news clippings from Roberta's flight."

Today, Sidey-Gibbons is one of the newest Canadian astronauts recruited in 2017. 

When she was recruited, her mother pulled out the dusty scrapbook. And then it came time for Sidey-Gibbons to meet Bondar. With some reluctance, Sidey-Gibbons shared the almost 26-year-old treasure.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jenni Sidey-Gibbons undergoes robotics training at CSA headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. (Canadian Space Agency (CSA))

"I was a bit nervous, because maybe it's a bit weird for you to share something you made about someone that you don't know, but she just really understood where I was coming from and where my mom was coming from.

"Having a very visible role model — a woman in science and a neurologist, no less — was really important."

WATCH | Astronaut Jenni Sidey-Gibbons shares her scrapbook with Roberta Bondar:

Sidey-Gibbons has the chance to venture even further into space than Bondar as Canada will be heading to the moon as part of NASA's Artemis program, which will see humans once again return to the moon's surface. 

Things will likely be very different for Sidey-Gibbons than it was for Bondar, who says, as a Canadian astronaut, there were quite a few restrictions.

"All astronauts who were flying then would be supposedly looked at as equals. We weren't," she said. "We were told we couldn't even touch a switch."

And, although she was already an accomplished photographer, she wasn't even allowed to use a new high-end Nikon film camera that was taken up. 

Much has changed since that flight 30 years ago, including private flights to the edge of space for wealthy citizens. 

But that view of Earth, hanging in the blackness of space is something that forever changed Bondar. 

"There's this edge, and there's this black, and stars that don't twinkle," she said, describing what it might feel like for someone who might travel to space.

"It all sounds like hackneyed stuff, but honestly, when you're there looking at it, if it doesn't make some dent somewhere in your scientific or creative mind, maybe they should have picked somebody else to fly."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at Nicole.Mortillaro@cbc.ca.

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