“When I was eight years old to be a spaceman was the most exciting thing I could imagine.”
– Dr. Roberta Bondar
In 1945, a baby girl was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. This girl grew up dreaming of being with the stars and looking at the Earth from the sky. The young girl’s name was Roberta Lynn Bondar. Her parents and family were very supportive during her growing up years and encouraged Roberta to explore the sciences and math. This was in an era that did not motivate girls to be successful in these areas. She was involved in Girl Guides to keep active and fit by camping and hiking. She was involved in high school sports and kept her grades high. She was determined to go to space some day.
She did studies on insects, which she was not fond of, and before she learned how to drive she earned her pilot’s license. She worked hard at her goals but going to space was always the ultimate. She studied and became a medical doctor and scientist by the time she was 31. She was the director of the M.S. (Multiple Sclerosis) unit at McMaster Medical Center in Hamilton, and an assistant professor of medicine at the McMaster University. She became certified as a parachute jumper and came to be a scuba diver.
In 1983, she came across an article looking for candidate astronauts. The Canadian Space Agency’s ad was very particular about the prerequisites needed. The following was listed in the article: individuals may have multiple degrees in medicine, science and /or engineering, military training, aviation experience, all must be the best in their chosen fields, dedicated to increasing scientific knowledge for enhancing quality of life on Earth and in space, bilingual public speaking, community involvement, physically fit, and could have experience in skydiving, scuba diving and piloting planes.
Roberta Bondar applied to the article, knowing that there would be thousands answering it. This was the first Canadian call for astronauts and there was over 4300 applications. The day before her 38th birthday, she received the call that she was accepted!
Due to complications, in 1984 she watched while fellow astronaut Marc Garneau became the first Canadian in space. She mourned, when in 1986 seven other fellow astronauts, including two women her age, were killed on the space shuttle Challenger but she still wanted to make her dream a reality. She had to fly between NASA bases in Texas and Alabama every few days for her training and preparation for her mission. She was up at 6 am, exercised, then worked. She had to carry snacks with her everywhere she went so she could eat.
Roberta’s job on the mission was to be a Payload Specialist. This meant that she was responsible, with another Payload Specialist on the flight, to conduct experiments. She wanted to discover how astronauts could physically stay in space for months or years. On the mission she would have only one week to do this, so she had to make sure the experiments she used were the right ones. This was her one chance. She had background knowledge of the nervous system and the inner ear balance and this was very important for her work in space.
The launch was originally set for December 1990, but because of various delays it was over a year before they actually set off. January 22, 1992, they finally launched from Cape Canaveral on the Discovery shuttle.
On the space voyage, Roberta and her Payload Specialist partner, Ulf Merbold of Germany, took turns sleeping to conduct the experiments. These included: growing oats and wheat, growing crystals, documenting the human body’s changes in space, and many others. She also photographed Earth and space. When they returned home, 8 days later and 129 revolutions around the Earth, more tests were done on the effects of space travel and the re-entry of the human body to Earth.
She received a hero’s welcome as the first Canadian woman into space, but Dr. Roberta Bondar was as excited not only to be the first woman, but to be the first neurologist in space. She retired as an astronaut in 1992, but she stills explores the Earth, especially Canada. She is a teacher, motivational speaker, photographer, “wisdom warrior”, author and she has many other titles. She became Chancellor of Trent University in 2003 and still speaks to groups. She is now 66 and still going!
Dr. Roberta Bondar is truly a Canadian to whom we can all look for inspiration to achieve our own dreams, no matter how big or small they are.