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Dr. Roberta Bondar, first Canadian woman to go to space, to mark 30th anniversary of groundbreaking work


For years, Dr. Roberta Bondar studied life on Earth.

She had trained in the fields of ecology and zoology, spent time as a summer student working with insects and always went camping with her parents growing up.

But it wasn't until her journey into space 30 years ago — becoming the first Canadian woman and neurologist to do so — that her view of our planet truly changed.

"It was the reality of the moment of actually seeing it as a planet and seeing — not seeing actually any life below — but seeing all these beautiful colours and geography that we learned in school, and it just really made me want to pay a bit more attention to what was on the surface of the planet," Bondar said during a one-on-one interview on Wednesday with CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme.

Jan. 22 will mark the 30th anniversary of Bondar's eight-day mission aboard Space Shuttle Discovery back in 1992, a moment that will be commemorated this Saturday by the Roberta Bondar Foundation.

The mission for the now-76-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., came several years after the Challenger disaster, when the space shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven of its crew members.

"I think if a person doesn't have a little twinge of fear when you're going inside a vehicle that looks like it's about to eat you alive, there's something wrong with you," Bondar said.

Even with the professional training she received, the impact of that disaster still had an effect on her family — while proud, they faced Bondar’s real risks of space flight.

"Because I wanted to accept certain risks, it wasn't necessarily what I should have expected my family to accept, but they did," Bondar said.

"And they wanted me to go forth and do these things because they knew that it had been my passion."

As part of her work, Bondar led an international research team that explored how the body can best adapt during and after space flight.

From a scientific viewpoint, the things Bondar thought about decades ago, namely how space may shift fluids in the body and into the head causing pressure to build up, are now being studied.

"So we were really ahead of our time, but it's really good to know that we're trying to get to the bottom of this, and by doing so we can help people here on the planet as well," she said.

But on a personal level, Bondar recalls the unsettling feeling of not being able to hear the sounds of nature she had been accustomed to back on Earth.

"That's the kind of thing that if one's not prepared for it becomes quite a void, that there's not the things that you just associate with life and maybe good mental health."

Since her return to Earth, Bondar has made a name for herself as a photographer, author and speaker. She has been recognized with the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, NASA Space Medal, is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an honorary vice-president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and been inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and International Women's Forum Hall of Fame.

Bondar also served as the ninth chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., has several schools named after her, and has a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.

When she thinks of space travel today, with billionaires making short trips through organizations such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, Bondar considers the ethics around that.

"We can't decide for somebody else how they spend their money, but we would hope that by the time they get to a certain reputation and credibility that they would use that wisely to help the world as well."

And even while her work was groundbreaking in many respects, to date less than one-fifth of those who have been to space have been women.

"We want people to get in and prove themselves, but we don't want people precluding these individuals," she said.

"So I think we have a long way to go when we look at how we select individuals for this end of the spectrum, when we haven't really paid enough attention or given enough impetus to the other side of it, which is the preparation even to try to become a candidate."

As for what advice she would give young girls and boys today, particularly during a time of a global pandemic and the ever-present issue of climate change, Bondar says it's about combatting fear, no matter what you choose to do.

"Arts helps us create and express ourselves," she said. "Science also helps us develop certain skill sets, but it does diminish the fear factor." Top Stories

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