Roberta Bondar

The world’s first neurologist in space, Dr. Roberta Bondar is globally recognized for her pioneering contributions to space medicine research, fine art photography and environment education.

Roberta Bondar, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Featuring artwork by Miler Ximena Lopez & words by Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, Sci-Illustrate Stories. Set in motion by Dr. Radhika Patnala.

The summer of 1969, the world witnessed humans landing and walking on the Moon, showing the heights of technology and human intellect. In a little town in Ontario, Canada, Roberta Bondar watched the landing with her father. It was an “affirmation of everything I believed would have to be possible,” including women soaring beyond gender bias in science. Roberta went on to become part of the first team of the Canadian Astronauts in 1983, and the first neurologist in space!

“When I was eight years old, to be a spaceman was the most exciting thing I could imagine.” — Roberta Bondar

Early Life

Roberta was born in Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario on December 4, 1945 to a Ukrainian and English couple, Edward and Mildred Bondar. Her father worked for the Sault Ste. Marie Public Utilities Commission, while her mother was an educator who taught business and commerce. Roberta was the second of two daughters, born a year after Barbara. Both parents encouraged Roberta and her older sister to be goal oriented, and the girls were involved in many extracurriculars including Girl Guides, the YMCA, Anglican Church groups and many sporting activities. She was given a camera when she was young, which sparked her interest in photography.

Roberta Bondar as a child.

Roberta’s love of the sciences began as a child. To encourage her interests, her father built her a lab in the basement where she frequently conducted experiments. She dreamt of becoming an astronaut. She led the science team at her high school, Sir James Dunn Collegiate and Vocational School, and received honourable mention at the Canada Wide Science Fair in Grade 13. While her family was very supportive of her interests, she did not receive the same encouragement from her school.

In a later interview, Roberta remembered receiving the highest score on a test for candidate crossing-guards. But her teacher appointed a boy to be safety patrol captain instead of her, simply because he was male. She remembers that it made her even 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.” So, when it came time to apply for post-secondary education, she ignored her high school guidance counsellor’s attempt to dissuade her from pursuing science in university, believing that it wasn’t a subject for girls.

Roberta joined the University of Guelph for a Bachelor of Science in zoology and agriculture, graduating in 1968. As an undergraduate at UGuelph, she worked as a research assistant with the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Forestry on genetics of the spruce budworm with reference to the visual system. She also coached the archery team, was a physical education lecturer and a part-time histology technician. She also got her pilot’s license during her undergraduate career.

In the summer of 1969, she was back in Sault Ste Marie for summer holidays, before starting her Master of Science degree. The lunar lander touched down on the surface of the moon, and watching it in awe with her father, the event strengthened her desire to go into space. She knew she wanted to be a doctor and thought that space engineers will probably need someone in medicine. Her family was very supportive, and they believed that if she wanted to be an astronaut, then she could.

The path to space

With her family’s backing and her self-confidence, Roberta joined the University of Western Ontario for a Master of Science in experimental pathology, graduating in 1971. She went on to earn a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Toronto in 1974, and a Doctor of Medicine from McMaster University in 1977. After an internship in internal medicine at Toronto General Hospital (1977–1978), she completed post-graduate medical training in neurology at the University of Western Ontario (1980), in neuro-ophthalmology at Tuft’s New England Medical Center in Boston (1981), and at the Playfair Neuroscience Unit of Toronto Western Hospital as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (1981–1982). For the next two years she served as assistant professor of medicine (neurology) and the Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Clinic for the Hamilton-Wentworth Region at McMaster University.

In 1983, the National Research Council of Canada created the Canadian Astronaut Program (now part of the Canadian Space Agency) to recruit Canada’s first astronauts. Roberta applied immediately, one of ~4,300 people and part of the 11% of the applicants who were women. After six months of interviews and tests, she was chosen as one of the six original Canadian astronauts, the only female. She was more qualified academically than anyone else in the program, and her research and clinical work on the nervous system had immediate relevance to experiments planned for the first Canadian spaceflight.

First team of Canadian Astronauts in 1983. Image from Canadian Encyclopedia

Training for space

Roberta began astronaut training in 1984 moving to Ottawa, which would eventually take her to NASA in Houston, Texas. Already a licensed pilot, Roberta was trained from 1984 to 1985 as a back-up payload specialist (a space shuttle crew member responsible for scientific experiments, cargo or other specific objectives) 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.

During the years of astronaut training, she was also involved in teaching, research, and administration. In 1985 she was named chairperson of the Canadian Life Sciences Subcommittee for the Space Station. She also served as a member of the Ontario Premier’s Council on Science and Technology, along with a Civil Aviation medical examiner and a member of the scientific staff of Sunnybrook Health Science Centre. She is conducting research into blood flow in the brain during microgravity, lower body negative pressure and various pathological states.

STS-42 crew in 1991. Image Source: NASA

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. The original flight was planned for December 1990 but was delayed several times. Training for the mission included preparing for the physical toll of space travel, practicing the experiments, and rehearsing escape and emergency procedures. As the time neared for her actual mission, her training hours necessarily increased, as did the hard work. During these training years, she was not immune to sexism at NASA and 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.”

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.”

The space flight

In 1992 she was designated a prime Payload Specialist for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1). Roberta flew on the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery during Mission STS-42, January 22–30, 1992. The main objective of STS-42 was to carry the International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-1), the precursor to the International Space Station, into orbit so as to discover means to allow future astronauts to undertake longer flights in space. The mission was originally planned to last ten days, but repairs on the shuttle forced the mission to be shortened to seven days.

Roberta Bondar in space. From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library.

“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.” — Roberta Bondar

After the crucial 8.5-minute launch and separation phase when the shuttle entered orbit, ~3 hours after liftoff, Roberta and her colleagues began working. For seven days, they worked 16-to-18-hour shifts conducting scientific experiments aimed at understanding the physical changes that take place in the human body in the weightless conditions of zero gravity. Roberta reported that she didn’t need her glasses while in space, likely because of the effect of microgravity on the eye’s fluids. This was fortunate, as her glasses had floated away early in the mission.

Roberta Bondar in space. Image Source: Flickr CC/NASA Johnson STS042–201–009. Image from Canadian Encyclopedia

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, shrimp eggs, fruit fly eggs, and bacteria.

The entire crew worked hard, and the mission went smoothly. With enough provisions and fuel left, NASA permitted the team 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. It was then that Roberta was able to reflect on this unique experience, to view Earth from afar. She said that, “The science was great and you come back with a successful feeling, but the special part is seeing Earth.” With her interest in photography, she thoroughly enjoyed documenting Earth from space.

Back on Earth

After 129 orbits around Earth, Discovery landed in California on 30 January 1992. The astronauts then underwent testing to compare how their bodies responded to conditions in space versus conditions on Earth. The data they collected would be analyzed for years to come. For over a decade after her spaceflight, Roberta headed an international research team working with NASA examining data to better understand the mechanisms underlying the body’s ability to recover from exposure to space. Her research considered the linkage to Parkinson’s disease amongst other neurological effects.

Roberta Bondar giving a NASA decal to young girl. c. 1992. Image Source: Toronto Public Library

Roberta pursued her interests in photography with an emphasis on natural environments; she was an Honours student in Professional Nature Photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography, Santa Barbara, California. She is the author of four photo essay books that feature her photography of the Earth. In 1995, she published “On the Shuttle: Eight Days in Space”, a children’s book co-written with her sister, Barbara. She has also been a consultant and speaker to diverse organizations, drawing on her expertise as an astronaut, physician, scientific researcher, photographer, author, environment interpreter, and team leader. She served two terms as the Chancellor of Trent University, from 2003 to 2009. In 2009, she registered The Roberta Bondar Foundation as a not-for-profit charity centers on environmental awareness.

“It would be pretty dull if one hadn’t taken risks in one’s life.” — Roberta Bondar

Roberta Bondar with Canadian $25 coin. Image Source: CBC Speakers Spotlight

She has been a recipient of a long list of honours and awards, including the Officer of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario, the NASA Space Medal, induction into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Forum’s International Hall of Fame, the Walter E. Dandy Distinguished Orator for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, and appointment as Tetelman Fellow at Yale University, only to name a few. In 2017, the Royal Canadian Mint released a limited edition 25th anniversary $25 coin entitled “A View of Canada from Space”.

Roberta is a true proponent for change and challenges, believing in continually discovering yourself and your capabilities. In her TEDx talk, she speaks to how we all have to embrace change to navigate each of our unchartered lives. She is an inspirational woman and a great Canadian icon who exhibits a human curiosity and unending drive to reach, and help others reach higher capabilities. She exudes genuine wholesomeness, selflessness, and an unassuming style that makes even the most scientifically uninitiated among us feel comfortable, inspired and ready to learn more under her guidance.

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 acknowledges the barriers and difficulties women face as mothers and partners but continues to ask us to challenge our limitations.

“How do you prepare yourself for the unknown? Because each of us in our own lives is on a voyage that is uncharted.” — Roberta Bondar

Timeline

1945: Born in in Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario, Canada

1962: Graduated from high school, Sir James Dunn Collegiate and Vocational School

1968: Graduated with BSc in zoology and agriculture from the University of Guelph

1971: Graduated with MSc in experimental pathology from the University of Western Ontario

1974: Earned a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Toronto

1977: Earned an MD from McMaster University

1977–1982: Internships in internal medicine, neurology, neuro-ophthalmology, and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada

1982–1984: Assistant professor of medicine (neurology) and the Director of the Multiple Sclerosis Clinic for the Hamilton-Wentworth Region at McMaster University

1983: Selected as one of six original Canadian astronauts and the only female.

1984: Began astronaut training while involved in teaching, research, and administration

1990: Selected as one of two prime payload specialists for the International Microgravity Laboratory (IML) mission

1992: Designated a prime Payload Specialist for the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission (IML-1). Flew on the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery during Mission STS-42, January 22–30, 1992

1992–2002: Headed an international research team working with NASA

2009: Registered The Roberta Bondar Foundation as a not-for-profit charity centres on environmental awareness

Sources

About the author:

DR. ROOPALI CHAUDHARY

Content Editor Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate Stories

Dr. Chaudhary has an MSc in Genetics (University of Waterloo, Canada) studying Drosophila embryogenesis (fruit fly embryo development), and a PhD in Cellular & Molecular Biology (McMaster University, Canada) studying intestinal inflammation in a novel mouse model. She furthered her career in a 3-year post-doctoral fellowship studying the immune memory in food allergies (McMaster University, Canada). Dr. Chaudhary’s continually strives to make science accessible, be with through her edible science art (custom cakes), teaching or her outreach activities.

About the artist:

MILER XIMENA LÓPEZ

Contributing Artist Women in Science, Sci-Illustrate stories

Expressing myself graphically has always been a source of great satisfaction for me. With my work, I can provide many things to others in different positive ways, as well as get a lot in return, because in every goal achieved, in every process, there is a lot to learn.

About this series:

Not enough can be said about the amazing Women in Science who did and continue to do their part in moving the world forward.

Every month, through the artwork & words of the Sci-Illustrate team, we will bring to you profiles of women who touched our hearts (and brains) with their scientific works, and of many more who currently hold the flag high in their own fields!

-Dr. Radhika Patnala, Series Director

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