SPACE

A twinkle in the sky

Canadian Roberta Bondar flies in space

CECILY ROSS February 3 1992
SPACE

A twinkle in the sky

Canadian Roberta Bondar flies in space

CECILY ROSS February 3 1992

A twinkle in the sky

SPACE

Canadian Roberta Bondar flies in space

When Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman to travel in space, returns to Earth this week, her five-foot, six-inch frame is likely to be almost three inches taller than it was when she left. Scientists say that in the weightless conditions of space, astronauts’ spines stretch significantly, causing pain and muscle spasms, before returning to normal after a flight is completed. Finding out more about what changes the human spine undergoes in space was one of the tasks assigned to the 46-year-old neurologist as one of two payload specialists aboard the space shuttle Discovery, which blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a bright, calm morning last week. For Bondar, the voyage was the realization of a dream that began when she was growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. She said that as a girl, she was inspired by seeing American communications satellites. Said Bondar:

“We used to be able to watch them go across the sky at night. You get very philosophical when you are young, and you think about reaching out and going up.”

Still, Bondar’s busy schedule during the seven-day flight of Discovery left little time for reflection. Performing tests on her fellow crew members’ backs was just one of 42 scientific experiments that Bondar, a medical doctor who specializes in research, and other crew members were assigned to perform during Discovery’s 15th voyage. The overall purpose of the flight was to gather data on how plants, animals and humans function in space. Bondar and other members of the crew, under Cmdr. Ronald Grabe of the U.S. navy and pilot Steven Oswald, a U.S. air force colonel, conducted experiments in a windowless module set up in Discovery’s cargo bay to function as a so-called micro-

gravity laboratory.

The lab work, in which Bondar and German physicist Ulf Merbold participated in alternating 12-hour shifts, was a joint effort involving more than 200 ground-based scientists from 16 countries, including Canada, the United States, Japan, France, Denmark and Britain. Bondar carried out experiments that could lead to improved treatment for inner-ear disorders, motion sickness and some forms of cancer.

About 65 friends and relatives of Bondar,

who is single, travelled to Cape Canaveral to witness the shuttle launch, which took place at 9:53 a.m. EST after a last-minute delay caused by a combination of weather and minor technical concerns. Just eight minutes after blast-off, when Discovery left the Earth’s atmosphere, Bondar became the second Canadian to fly into space—after Marc Garneau, the Quebec Cityborn engineer who was aboard a 1984 flight of

the Challenger space shuttle—and the 18th woman in space. Said Aldona Bondar, who is Bondar’s aunt: “It was just breathtaking.” And Mary Pigeon, a 79-year-old retired schoolteacher from Huntsville, Ont., who was Bondar’s girl guide leader in Sault Ste. Marie, also watched the launch. Said Pigeon: “It was just a spectacular sight. I felt things that I have never felt before.”

Aboard Discovery, Bondar, who began her scientific career 35 years ago by conducting experiments in the family refrigerator on the

life cycle of tent caterpillars, said that she felt right at home. On the first day of her flight, Bondar and her crew mates spent some of their time tidying up their quarters. Bondar and Merbold shared the shuttle’s lab with an array of plants and other life-forms, including roundworms, fruit flies, yeast, frog eggs, frog sperm, oat and wheat seedlings, mouse kidney cells and slime mould. All were monitored by sensing devices to determine their responses to weightlessness and space radiation.

For Bondar, the task of conducting scientific experiments in space was the latest challenge in a life characterized by physical and scientific accomplishments. As a youngster in Sault Ste. Marie, where her father managed a local public utilities office, Bondar showed an early affinity for sports and science. She also displayed a natural talent for leadership. Said Pigeon: “Bobby was a great worker and a wonderful leader. We knew she was headed for something out of the ordinary.”

After graduating from high school, she went on to eam a bachelor of science degree from the University of Guelph in Ontario, a master of science degree in experimental pathology from the University of Western Ontario in London, a doctorate in neurobiology from the University of Toronto and a degree in medicine from McMaster University in Hamilton.

In 1983, along with about 4,300 other Canadians, she answered an advertisement that appeared in Canadian newspapers for astronaut trainees. She and five other Canadians, including Garneau and Steven MacLean, an Ottawa-bom laser physicist who is scheduled to be aboard a space-shuttle flight in September, were chosen for the program. Larkin Kerwin, president of the Montrealbased Canadian Space Agency, who helped to select Bondar, said that she was chosen ^ for her intellectual ability, physical courage and stable personality. He added: “She is a fine scientist, and a remarkable lady physically and intellectually.” Declared Kerwin: “She gets along very well with other people, which is essential if you are going to be cooped up with six others for seven days.” During the preparations for Discovery’s flight, Bondar said that she would realize her greatest ambition when the 2,250-ton shuttle launch rocketed into the sky. In a prepared statement released by the Canadian Space Agency the day before Discovery’s liftoff, Bondar said that she would soon “be granted the privilege and honor of touching the Earth with my eyes, my heart, my mind and my soul. All of you will be blended into the earthscape of blues, browns and greens, while in turn I shall become part of a twinkle in the night sky.”

Aboard Discovery, Bondar was busy with a full schedule of intricate medical and scientific tasks. The Canadian Space Agency’s Kerwin said that the Discovery flight was “the most dense scientific project ever carried into space,” and noted that Canadian scientists were responsible for about 10 per cent of the projects. The scientific work aboard the spacecraft included a series of experiments aimed at determining how the human nervous system adapts to weightlessness. The tests’ designer was Douglas Watt, a professor of physiology at Montreal’s McGill University. Discovery carried a piece of equipment known as the McGill mini-sled. After strapping a crew mate into the device, which slides back and forth, Bondar applied electrodes to his leg to determine changes in reflexes in the absence of gravity.

Scientists said that other experiments devised by Watt’s team could lead to refinements in the diagnosis and treatment of inner-ear disorders and motion sickness. According to Luc Lefebvre, project engineer for the McGill experiments, the Discovery flight provided an opportunity to learn more about the functioning of the inner ear by carrying out the experiments in the absence of gravity.

Scientists said that another series of experiments, designed by scientists at the University of British Columbia, could lead to improved treatment for cancer. Doctors at the university have developed a process called “phase partitioning” that can be used to separate bone-marrow cells from other tissue used in treating some forms of cancer. On Earth, gravity inhibits the process, and researchers said that they hoped an experiment run by Bondar in weightless conditions would point to ways of improving the process on Earth.

As well, Bondar carried out tests to determine whether humans in space expend more or less energy than when they are on the ground. Scientists at the University of Calgary, where the energy-expenditure tests were developed, said that the findings could be used to develop exercise and nutritional programs for astronauts involved in prolonged space flights in the future. In another experiment, Bondar and Merbold were scheduled to test an anti-gravity suit designed by scientists at the Canadian Space Agency.

Some astronauts in the past have reported feeling fatigued and dizzy upon re-entry. Some of them have also said that they lost some of their peripheral vision, while others said that they became faint during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists believe that the symptoms are caused by a decline in blood volume and other bodily fluids, probably as the result of dehydration, during space flight. The Canadian-designed antigravity suit is intended to minimize such symptoms by applying pressure and altering blood pressure in 11 key areas of the body.

Before Discovery’s blast-off, Bondar acknowledged being conscious of the dangers of space flight—in 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven aboard. “I know when I get down to the pad and see these rockets sitting on the launchpad, that’s when you get nervous,” Bondar told reporters. She added: “But how could anyone pass up a chance like this?” And after her adventure in space, the scientific data that she collected could help to improve the health of future astronauts, while making possible better medical care for her fellow earthlings.

CECILY ROSS