Two sisters share a childhood pretty much in the middle of the twentieth century, in Sault Ste. Marie, northern Ontario. Their mother taught, among other things, home economics, and often mentored the high school cheerleaders. Their father worked for the city. Both parents had broad interests, including science, music, and photography. Their daughters defied the stereotype of little girls in the 1940s and 1950s. They loved science and outdoor adventure. They played cowboy. And they played Flash Gordon, taking the roles of the intrepid adventurer and his adversary, Ming the Merciless.

The younger sister would make it into space.

Roberta Lynn Bondar (1945- ), O.C., M.D., Ph.D., F.R.C.P.: long before she saw the earth from space, people who knew her held her in awe.

Both she and her older sister, Barbara, have been fascinated with science since early childhood, and conducted experiments in a basement laboratory built by their father. As a teenager, she achieved in academics and athletics, and she learned to fly a plane before she took up driving a car. She pursued her education at four Canadian universities; her degrees include a Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of Toronto and a medical degree from McMaster University. In 1981, she was admitted as a fellow by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Her speciality is neuro-ophthalmology: the study of how the brain and optical systems interact to produce vision. She has held positions with an overwhelming number of institutions, doing research related to neurology. A list of her non-honourary titles would include Distinguished Professor, Centre for Advanced Technology Education (CATE), Ryerson Polytechnic University; CIBC Distinguished Professor, Faculty of Kinesiology, University of Western Ontario; Visiting Research Scholar, Department of Neurology, University of New Mexico; Visiting Research Scientist, Universities Space Research Association, Johnson Space Centre, Houston, Texas.

Along the way, she has earned certificates in parachuting and scuba diving. She has long used the camera in her research, and in recent years taken up nature photography as something of a subsidiary career, wanting, according to her website, to "document and celebrate the beauty of this planet." She has written books, and holds a chair with the Friends of the Environment.

And, in 1984, she was one of the first six Canadians accepted into NASA's astronaut program. In 1990, she received the news that she would be working as a payload specialist with the first International Microgravity Laboratory Mission. During her training, she turned down the opportunity to go into space on board the Mir space station, in part because the Russians wanted a trained astronaut as a female test subject, and she would not have been able to apply her scientific and medical training.

Space waited for her. On January 22, 1992, she flew as part of Discovery's crew: the first neurologist and the first Canadian woman to leave the planet. Visual highlights of this particular mission appear in the IMAX film, Destiny in Space. Her research, both in space and on earth, has examined (among other things) the effects of zero gravity on astronauts, and has implications for the treatment of cardiovascular illnesses, certain conditions of the nervous system (think Parkinson's disease), strokes, and spinal cord injuries.

Work in space is steady and serious, but the crew took a break during a live satellite link-up with the Super Bowl. Commander Ron Grabe and pilot Steve Oswald "flipped" Dr. Bondar in zero gravity, adding to her weightier honours that of the first human coin toss.

She has since had named for her schools in Ajax and Ottawa, Ontario and in Abbotsford, British Columbia, a public centre in her native Sault Ste. Marie, and a breed of rose. Since returning from space she has pursued her research and also her photography, publishing in 2000 Passionate Vision, images of Canada's 41 national parks.

Yes, she pretty much defines "gifted," but she has developed and used her talents in a consistently positive way (this is a woman who lowered the speed at which she drives to reduce the risk of accident-- after she calculated the cost of her NASA training). She achieved what most only dream of, and it encouraged research which will help humanity, and increased her desire to protect the environment.

Perhaps it's a bit trite and traditional to draw thematic confusions from a person's life, but Dr. Bondar's strongly suggests two:

  1. A human being can achieve much, especially when properly nurtured and challenged.
  2. Space exploration isn't a waste of money.

On the day her shuttle launched, she found a mysterious note among her things: Ming, wishing Flash all the best on her voyage.

"Roberta Bondar, Astronaut." Adventures in Science and Technology.

"Roberta Bondar." Biographical Data. Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center.

"Roberta Bondar." Celebrating Women's Achievements.

Roberta Bondar. Touching the Earth. Touching the Earth. Toronto: Key Porter, 1994.

Roberta Bondar Website.
STS-42 Mission Status, Report #1. NASA.

Thanks to RPGeek.

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