Only the second Canadian astronaut and the first Canadian woman to travel in space, Roberta Bondar is also the first foreign woman to fly on a United States space flight. As one of the original six astronauts selected by the Canadian Space Agency in 1983, Bondar was chosen in 1989 to begin training as a payload specialist for the International Microgravity Laboratory mission (IML-1). In January 1992, she was part of a seven-person crew that spent eight days conducting zero-gravity experiments aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in what resulted in an extremely smooth and highly successful mission.
Roberta Lynn Bondar was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada on December 4, 1945. She attended elementary and secondary school in her home town, and it was there, in the eighth grade, that she was first driven to prove that she was as capable as any male. Bondar recalled that although she had received the highest score on a test for candidate crossing-guards, her teacher appointed a boy to be safety patrol captain instead of her, simply because he was male. Remembering this and other slights in a 1992 interview with Macleans, Bondar said that each made her more determined, "to be as qualified as possible, so if people didn't want me, they'd have to say, look, you're a woman and I don't think you can do it."
Obtains Ph.D., M.D., and Specializes in Neuro-ophthalmology
In her 1994 book Touching the Earth, Bondar recounts how she was always interested in science and spaceflight, saying, "Every birthday, I asked for a plastic model-rocket kit, a chemistry set, or a doctor's bag." After attending the University of Guelph in Ontario and majoring in zoology and agriculture, she received her B.S. with honors in 1968. As an undergraduate at Guelph, she worked as a research assistant with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Forestry. She also coached the archery team and was a physical education lecturer and a part-time histology technician. By 1971, she had received her master's degree in experimental pathology from the University of Western Ontario. Three years later, she obtained a Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of Toronto.
From there, she went directly to medical school and graduated from McMaster University as a medical doctor in 1977. Her medical internship was spent at Toronto General Hospital (1977-78), and she then completed her postgraduate medical training in neurology at the University of Western Ontario in 1980. In 1981 she became a neuro-ophthalmology fellow at Tuft's New England Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, and also trained at the Playfair Neuroscience Unit of Toronto Western Hospital from 1981 to 1982. For the next two years she served as assistant professor of medicine (neurology) and Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Clinic for the Hamilton-Wentworth Region at McMaster University. It was during this time at McMaster that she applied for and was chosen as one of the six original Canadian astronauts.
Competes, Trains, and Receives a Flight Mission
Bondar was selected in December 1983 to represent her country as an astronaut, and in February 1984 she began training. Already a licensed pilot, Bondar was trained from 1984 to 1985 as a back-up payload specialist for a shuttle mission then scheduled for launch in 1987. Being only a back-up meant that she would only fly if the person who was part of the first team was unable to perform. In 1989 she was named a candidate payload specialist for the International Microgravity Laboratory (IML) mission, and in March 1990 she was selected as one of two prime payload specialists for that planned flight. Her goal of flying in space was closer than ever.
During these years of astronaut training, she was also involved in teaching, research, and administration. As the time neared for her actual mission, her training hours necessarily increased, as did the hard work. Recalling these years in a December 1992 interview with the Canadian journal, Macleans, she stated that she encountered sexism at NASA as well as with her own group of Canadian astronauts. Remembering her Canadian colleagues, she stated that, "Sometimes they would ask someone who was not an M.D. a medical question and I'd say, excuse me, but it really works this way." In another interview in the same magazine, she recounted that once in space, "Our lives depended on one another--there was a bond there. We may have had disagreements, but the wagons circle when someone fails. It is a tightly knit group and there is a tight bond. We respect one another's strengths and weaknesses. I enjoyed the orbiter crew. They are really good friends and pals."
Becomes the First Canadian Woman to Fly in Space
Only six years after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts only minutes after lift-off, Bondar found herself on January 22, 1992, strapped into her launch couch listening to the countdown and thinking about that other fateful January. During the difficult and trying times of preparation and training, she often asked herself if this was the way she wanted to live her life. Each time she witnessed another successful shuttle flight however, she found the answer to that question by realizing, "I'm one more [flight] closer to the pad."
After the crucial 8.5 minute launch and separation phase when the shuttle entered orbit, Bondar and her colleagues set about doing what they had trained to do. For seven days, Bondar worked 16- and 18-hour days conducting scientific experiments aimed at understanding the physical changes that take place in the human body in the weightless conditions of zero gravity. Working in an often cramped shuttle laboratory, she was spun in a rotating chair in an experiment designed to measure the effects of weightlessness on her body. She also evaluated the spread of the vertebra in her crew members' backs that would cause them painful muscle spasms and backaches. Among her other scientific responsibilities was the measurement of the effect of gravity on the growth of fertilized frog eggs.
The entire crew worked so hard and the mission went so smoothly, that NASA permitted them to stay one day beyond the planned seven so that they might be able to simply enjoy the phenomenon of flying in space without having to perform an experiment or execute some duty. It was then that Bondar was able to reflect on this unique experience, to view Earth from afar, and to realize how strongly she felt about her native land. Putting her experience in perspective for Macleans, she said that, "The science was great and you come back with a successful feeling, but the special part is seeing Earth."
Bondar returned to Earth and found herself ecstatically received by her fellow Canadians. Among the scores of honors she received were the Officer of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, as well as the NASA Space Medal, induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Forum’s International Hall of Fame, being named the Walter E. Dandy Distinguished Orator for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and appointment as Tetelman Fellow at Yale University. Additionally, Bondar holds honorary degrees from over 20 universities. She has also had elementary schools in Canada named after her and received awards from France and the United States. As a highly successful role model for all young women interested in careers in science and engineering, she does admit however, that being an unmarried woman made her job both easier and doable. She told Macleans that, "If I had had kids and a family, I don't know how I would have coped." After leaving the space program in August 1992, she went on to become CIBC Distinguished Professor, Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario and then chancellor of Trent University in 2003. She also had more time to pursue such recreational interests as flying, photography, biking, hot-air ballooning, and roller blading. Photography was a special passion, which she honed by studying at the Brook’s Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Her work was first shown at the National Gallery of Canada in 1997, and she eventually published three books featuring her photographs. She still lives by the words she told Macleans in 1992, "It would be pretty dull if one hadn't taken risks in one's life."
- Touching the Earth. Toronto: Key Porter, 1994.
- Passionate Vision: Discovering Canada’s National Parks. Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.
- Canada: Landscape of Dreams. Douglas & McIntyre, 2002.
- The Arid Edge of Earth. Roberta Bondar Astronaut Enterprise, 2006.
- Cassutt, Michael. Who's Who In Space. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1993, p. 343.
- Hawthorne, Douglas B. Men and Women of Space. San Diego, CA: Univelt, Inc., 1992, pp. 85-87.
- Shearer, Benjamin F., and Barbara S. Shearer, eds. Notable Women in the Life Sciences. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 51.
- "A Report From Space." Macleans (February 24, 1992): 52-53.
- "An Odyssey In Learning." Macleans (December 28, 1992): 16-17.
- Press Release. "Biographical Data: Roberta Lynn Bondar." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Houston, TX: July 1997.
- “Roberta Bondar,” Diane Farris Gallery, http://www.dianefarrisgallery.com/artist/bondar/index.html (March 21, 2008).