The Sunday Magazine

Roberta Bondar flew into space 30 years ago and never saw Earth the same after that

It's been 30 years since Roberta Bondar was strapped into a five-point harness on the space shuttle Discovery and blasted into space and into fame as Canada's first female astronaut.

Canada’s 1st female astronaut challenges space program to evolve

Roberta Bondar was the first female astronaut from Canada, blasting off on the space shuttle Discovery on Jan. 22, 1992. She says the experience made her realize how much the Earth meant to her. (Don Dixon)

It's been 30 years since Roberta Bondar was strapped into a five-point harness on the space shuttle Discovery and blasted into fame as Canada's first female astronaut.

But first, she left a tearful farewell recording for her mom, in case of disaster. It was the first time a Canadian had been part of 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 somebody who represented strength and valour and bravery," Bondar, 76, told Piya Chattopadhyay of CBC Radio's The Sunday Magazine.

Bondar joked that people saw her as either "brave or out of her mind."

There are a few things people may not know about Bondar. Her name is pronounced BOND-ur, not bond-ARE.

In space, she played renditions of O Canada as she drifted above planet Earth. And what she saw as she was tossed like a slow-motion dice changed her.

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

"In space tumbling around and being at all angles … develop[s] a different perspective," said Bondar, who now lives in Toronto.

"I like reflecting back to it in the moments when I have some peaceful time, especially out in the natural world. I think about being away from the planet and how much the planet meant to me."

Blazing trails in space 

Bondar dreamed of space travel since grade school. She defied her high school guidance counsellor — who dissuaded her from pursuing science saying it wasn't a subject for girls — and a lot of odds to eventually earn a spot on the U.S. space shuttle Discovery's flight that blasted off on Jan. 22, 1992.

"No one had done any of this. I was really on the tip of the prow of a ship plowing through heavy seas. There were no role models for me in Canada," said Bondar.

Now, decades later, there are schools in Bondar's name and a Canadian postage stamp with her face.

"Being the first Canadian woman was a big thing because it supposedly was going to show the diversity of the space program, which is — I don't want to choke over it — but I'm not sure that we have that, still," said Bondar.

Bondar inspired would-be female astronaut candidates like Alberta's Shawna Pandya. She said she's been fascinated by the night sky and space travel since childhood. Pandya followed in Bondar's footsteps, getting a degree in neuroscience and studying medicine before attending the International Space University in France.

"I remember being obsessed with reading about Dr. Bondar's trajectory. She inspired me in so many ways. She was hugely influential with the trails that she blazed," said Pandya.

Despite Bondar's inroads, astronaut recruitment programs don't reflect Canada's diversity, still leaning toward military-trained males, according to Bondar.

Bondar works in the International Microgravity Laboratory with U.S. astronaut Steve Oswald on Jan. 22, 1992. (NASA)

NASA confirmed that 73 women have been to space — about 12 per cent of all people sent there so far.

"We can continue to expect it to increase as astronaut classes are increasingly diverse. Canada's last astronaut selection was 50/50," said Stephanie Schierholz, lead spokesperson for NASA public affairs.

The first woman in space was cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova on the Soviet Union's Vostok 6 in 1963. America's first woman in space was Sally Ride, a California physicist aboard the Challenger's STS-7 mission that blasted 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 "taking up space," she said. On board the shuttle, Bondar performed like any male crew member.

Commander Ronald Grabe voluntarily gave her his bunk or sleeping cabinet spot so she would not have to share with a male crew member.

"He didn't have to do that. That's the only special treatment I got as a female," said Bondar.

And she risked losing her coveted spot on the shuttle when she "kicked up a fuss" over the treatment of her family.

The space shuttle Discovery soars from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 30, 1984, beginning its maiden voyage and a storied spaceflight career that spanned more than 26 years. (NASA)

Bondar's father had died in 1985. In 1992, only her mother and sister came to see the launch at the 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 the Edwards Air Force Base in California after eight days in orbit.

"The rules said that unless you had a spouse or a dog, you couldn't have someone 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'

In the end, after a fight, Bondar's mother did greet her, but her sister waved from behind barbed wire.

That moment still stings.

Bondar is adamant that it was her supportive family, not rocket fuel, that really launched her.

It was a childhood of asking: Why?

"If we don't ask those deep questions about what's out there … then we are never going to evolve," Bondar said.

Payload specialist Bondar holds oat seedlings up to the video camera aboard Discovery on Jan. 25, 1992. (NASA/The Associated Press)

Now the first neurologist in space has evolved into an avid wildlife photographer. She now studies endangered migratory birds and runs the Toronto-based Roberta Bondar Foundation. She says her new mission is fusing art and science in an effort to protect the planet.

"When you look at Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, you see the work that was done. It captures both art and science. So at some point along our path, art and science split.

"I'm not sure that was the best thing to do because scientists have to be creative or they couldn't possibly develop ways of looking at things with different perspectives. And artists really have to understand some science."

She said in space it was the absence of Earth's sounds and smells that she noticed most. No bird song. No scent of forest rain. That's when she says that she realized just 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 Jan. 30, 1992. (CBC)

Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Annie Bender.