Dr. Roberta Bondar's world was forever altered in January 1992 when she looked down on Earth from the Space Shuttle Discovery and made a commitment to focus on protecting the natural world for the rest of her life. Thirty years after she became the first Canadian female astronaut in space and the first neurologist, Dr. Bondar continues to be busy connecting people to the natural world and inspiring them to respect and conserve the global environment.
“All the pictures in the world don’t do it justice,” Dr. Bondar said of looking out the flight deck window at our planet. Being able to see Earth, but not hear anything – not the birds chirping, not the wind rustling through the leaves – made her realize what a lonely planet it would be without life on it. “That was the premise for my wanting to come back and explore the planet and try to share with people the need to protect the natural world so that it doesn’t disappear, that all the life forms that are on it have a purpose in the big ecosystem that helps us live and thrive.”
In celebration of Dr. Bondar’s historic voyage to space, The Roberta Bondar Foundation is hosting a virtual evening with the former space traveller on Saturday, Jan. 22, 30 years to the day since she lifted off for an eight-day journey in which she circled Earth 129 times. The Ontario Medical Association is a sponsor of the event, which will include congratulations by singers Anne Murray, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Susan Aglukark, hockey legend and doctor Hayley Wickenheiser and astronaut David Saint-Jacques. Tickets for the main event and VIP gathering are available at Eventbrite or therobertabondarfoundation.org.
While she will share stories about her space flight, Dr. Bondar will also talk about her explorations of Earth since then, including her work with the Roberta Bondar Foundation, the environmental education organization she established in 2009. As a physician, wildlife photographer, scientist, author, pilot, skydiver and environmentalist, she has much to share. She says she was honoured to be the first female Canadian astronaut in space ─ with all the responsibility that came with being a trailblazer. Dr. Bondar is equally proud to have been the world’s first neurologist in space, with the opportunity to study how spaceflight affects the nervous system and other parts of the human body.
Her on-board medical research, involving more than 40 experiments, “made me feel that I was contributing a great deal to inspiring the whole field of space medicine and the researchers and astronauts who would follow me,” said Dr. Bondar, who has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and a medical degree from McMaster University.
After her career as a Canadian Space Agency astronaut, Dr. Bondar led an international space medicine research team for a decade, examining how returning astronauts recover from the microgravity of space and applying those lessons to understanding neurological illnesses on Earth.
Dr. Bondar was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1998. Although she is retired from practice, she remains a member of the Ontario Medical Association.
As a physician, she has a perspective that encompasses the health of the planet. Climate change is already affecting human health, with growing numbers of forest fires, extreme weather events and crop failures in Canada and globally. She believes doctors, like everyone else, must act.
“I believe the health-care system in Canada is one that is now extremely challenged by climate change,” Dr. Bondar said. If there is no effort to look for solutions and encourage behavioural changes, “we would fail as physicians. Our objective is to ‘do no harm’ and sitting and watching these things happen is actually harmful.”
Dr. Bondar’s views align with recommendations in the OMA’s Prescription for Ontario: Doctors’ 5-Point Plan for Better Health Care, released last fall. In the plan, Ontario doctors call for political action to be taken immediately on climate change to mitigate its severe consequences for human health and well-being. Dr. Bondar will join the OMA’s Green is Health medical interest group for an OMATalks panel on climate change to mark Earth Day on April 22. For example, physicians are rightly excited about advances in technology that offer the potential to decrease patient mortality. But there is rarely much attention paid to the environmental impact of these tools and the agents they may need to work, or what will be done with them when their lifespan ends.
“A lot of medical education is spent getting us all excited about the technology and the kinds of things that are coming online and what we can do. But there isn’t a lot that deals with the environmental implication of it all,” Dr. Bondar said. Physicians and medical researchers are creative individuals and there’s no reason they can’t come up with solutions, she said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the technology, but maybe there’s some way that we could talk about the energy requirements for the technology or what we need to do to be able to have our technologies in a more environmentally friendly manner.”
Photography underpins much of the foundation’s programming. Dr. Bondar herself grew up in Sault Ste. Marie with a father and uncle whose passion was photography and who encouraged her interest from a very young age. She continued with photography throughout her university and medical school years and trained on 13 camera types in advance of her Discovery space flight. As a professional landscape and nature photographer, Dr. Bondar has explored the world with her cameras and her work has been featured in exhibitions across Canada, as well as in her books, including Passionate Vision: Discovering Canada’s National Parks and Touching the Earth and the Arid Edge of Earth.
Two of the foundation’s major initiatives are the Bondar Challenge, where youth are given cameras and taught to look at the natural world in a new way through photography; and AMASS – or Avian Migration Aerial Surface Space. That project uses photography – from the ground, air and space – to track the migratory pathways of endangered bird species, such as Canada’s whooping crane, which now number only about 500 in the wild. Dr. Bondar has taken all of the AMASS aerial and surface images herself, often from helicopters high above the breeding grounds and migratory paths in Canada, the U.S. and Africa. Photos of the same migration corridors are also taken from the International Space Station by NASA astronauts, including Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
These projects and others, which connect human beings to the natural world, make Dr. Bondar an optimist about the potential of human creativity to ensure the future of the natural world. Three decades after her space flight, when she looks up into space, she still has a sense of awe, knowing there are “great things out there that we have absolutely no idea what they are.”
“To be able to look up at the sky, to be able to actually look at ourselves as a life form and wonder, I think that is the greatest gift and I hope I never lose it.”
Keri Sweetman is an Edmonton-based writer.
Top image: Dr. Roberta Bondar photographing Whooping Cranes in Aransas NWR, Texas, USA (Photo credit: Don Dixon)