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Interview with astronaut Roberta Bondar

Roberta L Bondar O.C. O.Ont. MD PhD FRCP FRSC ICD.D

 
My grandmother flew in an airplane before my feet had left the ground for more than a jump into the air. In the early 1950’s, my sister, mom, dad and I drove our maternal grandparents across from Sault Ste. Marie, Canada to an airport just outside of our twin sister city of Sault Ste. Marie in the USA. Our grandparents often flew to work-related conventions in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Those were the days of white-gloved passengers and visitors waving goodbye, women wearing hats, men in suits and ties and no security, apart from a walk around the tail dragger by the pilot.

Even though we were not flying with our grandparents, my sister and I were allowed inside the shiny metallic airplane to see that new world first hand. I was conflicted as to how to use the precious few minutes as my eyes bounced from the seats to the windows and forward up the tilted floor to the instruments. It gave us new creative ideas for our own inventions and things that we built out of cardboard and wood.

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A few years later, my father’s youngest brother obtained his private pilot’s license and he suggested to my parents that they might like to come for a ride in a rented Piper Cub. Dad liked the idea but not so my mother. When I substituted for her, she gave me an anti-nausea medication because she knew that she would have been ill and wanted it to be a good experience for me. I was so drowsy that I could hardly get my head up to look out the window after we took off. The second time, I pretended to take the anti-motion sickness pill that I pocketed in my slacks. The view was astounding— the clarity and distance, the colors, shapes and textures. Even the light was different with tall crisp shadows. The change in perspective of looking down onto the tops of trees expanded to the relationship of land to water, roads that trickled along farmlands, specks that moved in fields. This was such a new view of the planet that I needed to see more, from the air and also the ground truth.

My parents never discouraged my higher level thinking around the concept of flying. Not once did they suggest that a little girl of the fifties, bound to grow up into womanhood, would not have the same opportunities offered to boys and men who wanted to fly as pilots. It was years later before I took my first commercial flight when I returned from competing in a country-wide science fair. By then, I was a cool passenger, given my experiences with my grandparents and my uncle. Not knowing how or when, I knew that flying would be a big part of my life. And being a woman would only challenge how I was to accomplish it.

In the summers at home between university semesters, I worked as a research assistant and was able to pay for flying lessons. As the money thinned out during the school terms away from home, I would temporarily suspend flying until the next summer. Luckily, there were scientific meetings to attend and I substituted commercial flight for being at the controls myself. Even in medical school, I signed up for electives to see how aviation was being used in the north to deliver healthcare and to transport patients. I welcomed any chance to fly, either as a passenger or as a pilot. And I always chose a window seat.

Before I flew in space on the space shuttle Discovery, I made the most of opportunities to fly everything from hot air balloons to high performance jets. At one point, when I was in the Canadian astronaut program, I was part owner of a fixed-wing four-seater aircraft. I sold my share when it became clear that the rest of the owners signed up to fly after I had cleared the snow from the high wings and had warmed up the plane.

The thrill of being in the air above the ground has not left me. Since my spaceflight, with its spectacular views of Earth and new perspective, I have switched seats in the cockpit so that I can create fine art photographs of our planet. Hanging out the windows with my large cameras is challenging. Through understanding flight as a pilot myself, however, I can direct other pilots to maneuver an aircraft to enable me to capture my artistic images, all inspired by flight.

Each time I step into a commercial aircraft, I think of my family and how much fun it would be to see them travel the great distances in comfort to places that they have read about—places that I saw from space and now enjoy exploring from a closer perspective. For as the world evolves, so will the view out the window. It should not be missed.​

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