Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

In Depth

Space

Roberta Bondar

Q & A on anniversary of historic flight

Last Updated Jan. 22, 2007

Bondar Canada's first woman astronaut Roberta Bondar stands next to the stamp commemorating her trip aboard the space shuttle Discovery on Sept. 26, 2003. (Andre Pichette/Canadian Press)

On Jan. 22, 1992, Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar boarded the space shuttle Discovery and blasted off into space, becoming the first Canadian woman and first neurologist to launch into orbit. During her eight days in space, Bondar conducted 43 experiments for 13 countries. She left the Canadian Space Agency soon after the mission and has branched into other passions, working as an educator and public speaker and exhibiting her photography from space and Earth. Bondar spoke with CBC News Online about the state of space exploration and her own journey that day and since.

What do you remember about Jan. 22, 1992?

One of the things I did the morning before the flight was leave a tape for my mother. I had to keep stopping every two minutes to cry because I was telling her this is what I've always wanted to do and if I die doing it … and I realized, hey, the possibility of me dying is very, very real.

These thoughts set me up for only two hours of sleep before my launch, so on the morning of my launch I was really prepared to go out and if need be become a piece of stardust. It's a kind of experience that's very hard to describe. I don't think everyone goes through this on a launch pad. I certainly did.

The caring and love I had for my family and the nation behind me spurred me on to do the best I could and be as alert as I could, and I guess that's all you can ask about someone who is going to go on top of a bomb.

So you had to get past how to get up there?

In order to speed yourself to 25 times the speed of sound you know you're going to have to put something on your backside to get you going. Although I'm a pilot and I've flown high-performance jets, this is much different. I was very aware that I was a pioneer stepping into a test vehicle. I never considered the space shuttle a perfectly safe vehicle, like you would stepping onto a 747 [airliner].

Would you say all spacecraft are test vehicles?

I would. There's the sub-orbital one Richard Branson has bought the rights to, called Spaceship One. But that's sub-orbital, to go orbital around the Earth is the difference between taking a bicycle across Canada and taking a jet. It's a different ballgame requiring far more energy and far more risk.

Right now, we have mechanics and engines sorted out, but there's always the element of the unknown, which I guess makes space flight attractive but also makes it extremely risky.

You took a number of photographs from space. Is there any particular photo that brings forth a powerful memory?

I love looking at shots of the Earth from space, and for everybody else those are probably what people like the best. But for me I have one photograph hanging over my bed that I had taken for my sister. We were always playing Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless growing up, and I had a picture taken of me floating with the Earth in the background and a card written to her with a message to Ming that "Flash escaped planet Mongo and was returning to Earth." That's the image that drove me to want to be an astronaut when I was young, looking at the sky and thinking grander, more philosophical thoughts that only a 12-year-old can. It is an exceptionally important and memorable photograph to me.

What is Roberta Bondar's current mission?

My current mission is education. I come at it from different perspectives. One is trying to educate myself continually about the planet. Another is to try to bring to other people the grandness of the landscape, that we are on a planet and not on a shelf that just exists like an LCD screen in front of us, and that there is respect and dignity to be learned from the environment and other things that live on the planet with us. This goes into the remunerative part of my life that includes corporate speaking about change and trying to look at life as a continuum of change.

Space agencies around the world are showing renewed interest in the moon, and have even raised the possibility of establishing a base there. What is your feeling about those plans?

I have always felt the space station was not the way to go, that we should go back to the moon, and that there wasn't someone of vision and passion to present the reasonable argument for it. I feel a lot of resource time and energy has gone into something that is not as helpful. Going to the moon would be an opportunity for humans to expand knowledge and technology that I believe is totally required before going farther to Mars.

Are humans ready for the physical adjustment of life outside Earth?

The medical aspect is so interesting because we send people into space that are totally normal and they get up there and within 24 hours they become changed. They are in a foreign environment [and] they have to change physiologically, mentally, emotionally and sometimes spiritually.

All of that is a wealth of information about disease here on Earth. When people come back from space they get all kinds of things that if you had here they'd slap you into the hospital. They have symptoms like staggering around, not being able to put one foot in front of the other, but the amazing thing is they recover, and there are very few times in medicine can we research the recovery rate and potential of various human systems. I look at [a moon mission] as not just an extension of all of these wonderful technologies, things which are absolutely incredible, but also an opportunity to increase our medical base.

The CSA hasn't had a president since Marc Garneau left. What does the organization need from their next leader to stay relevant in the international space community?

I think it goes beyond the space agency and towards our science and technology policy, whatever that is. I think international partnerships can be strengthened better than they are. Canada has done a lot of amazing things — we do amazing things in space science, astronomy, communications. When we're talking the non-human component, I don't think Canada has lagged behind. But I'm not sure the average person in Canada understands the benefits of these things. I think that's one thing the space agency lacks — that person with passion and energy to communicate the kinds of things we do in Canada. And I think that's something that's been absent for a long period of time.

The fact the space agency was taken away from the Ottawa area [to St. Hubert south of Montreal in 1993] for a political reason and put in a place away from the creative juices of our central government makes it hard. They lost a huge component of the program when they moved, and they lost a lot of people when they moved. You cannot get back that history and corporate knowledge that quickly, it's like canning the Avro Arrow and trying to develop another program.

I'm very encouraged about science in the country, and it's politically how we get there. Nothing gets my scalp itchy more than inconsistency, and governments [that] unfortunately start one thing and then governments change — and then they change a plan or policy and then you can't do the job you were all jammed up to do. These are the kind of political nightmares people are faced with.

There are many levels to the problem. Having the astronauts back and being more of a public face would be very helpful. People meet me and they say "You're the first astronaut I've met," and it's been 15 years since my flight. It's as fresh for me as it is for them, but we've had a number of astronauts in the program and people don't even know who they are. They may know Chris Hadfield's name, and they may know Marc Garneau and Julie Payette, but they have no idea who these other people are.

We were there to front the Canadian space program, not just the manned space program, and I don't see that in a big way happening right now. I'd like to see more of a connection with the things we're doing. I think the Canadian public needs to see where the tax dollars are being spent.

Have you ever been approached to be the president of the CSA?

Absolutely not, and if you asked me if I'd do it the answer is absolutely not. I can still do more as an astronaut not in the program. I've been asked to run in elections and I won't do it, because I do feel I have more to offer educationally in a way that's not biased by the government telling me what to do. I do things of my free will, and therefore they have a different credibility and value.

But it's very important for [Marc Garneau and I] to maintain the kind of profile we have. We still have the sacred responsibility — even though we're not in the space program — to go out and speak. And we need to do that. People need to understand how difficult human space flight is.

Go to the Top

Story Tools: PRINT | Text Size: S M L XL | REPORT TYPO | SEND YOUR FEEDBACK

World »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Canada »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Politics »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Health »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Arts & Entertainment»

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Technology & Science »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Money »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Consumer Life »

302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Sports »

[an error occurred while processing this directive] 302 Found

Found

The document has moved here.

more »

Diversions »

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
more »