Roberta Bondar delivers lecture on human health & space at Queen’s

Bondar speaks to packed lecture hall at Queen’s School of Medicine building

Roberta Bondar delivering her lecture in the School of Medicine building on Wednesday.

In 1992, Roberta Bondar became the first Canadian woman to enter space. While the experience was undoubtedly incredible, Bondar told a group of Queen’s students her return to earth wasn’t easy.

This Wednesday, Bondar presented her lecture “Beyond Earth — A Cautionary Tale,” at the 33rd annual H. Garfield Kelly Visiting Lectureship event at the Queen’s School of Medicine. She discussed her experiences as an astronaut and the physiological challenges humans still face in both long-term and short-term space flight.

During Bondar’s lone trip to space, she conducted dozens of experiments in the Discovery shuttle’s space-lab for the first International Microgravity Laboratory mission. Bondar was a “prime payload specialist” on the eight-day space flight orbiting earth. 

“[After the mission], they took us down to Loma Linda to have CT scans of our heads to make sure we hadn’t had strokes,” Bondar told to a packed lecture theatre on Wednesday.

“The countermeasures, as I mentioned, we try very hard … But we also have to know that there is probably an end-point to human physiology [in space] and we have to keep trying to figure out ways around it,” she said.

Bondar’s extensive education in the sciences spans more than a decade. She holds a Bachelor of Science in zoology and agriculture, a Master’s of Science in experimental pathology, a PhD in neurobiology and a medical degree. 

For over a decade, Bondar led an international research team at NASA. During her time there, she aimed to find better ways to treat recovering astronauts and to use this information to help treat neurological illnesses back on earth.

In an interview with Bondar before her lecture on Wednesday, she told The Journal in terms of human resilience, “we’re going to have to work things out before we go to Mars.”

“We’ve already had one [accident] with the Virgin Galactic type of spacecraft, but we can’t let these things stop us and say one accident is going to mean we can’t do this. What it does, is make us say ‘how do we make it smarter,’ ‘how do we become smarter,’” she said.

During the lecture, Bondar discussed developing countermeasures to the effects of space on the human body, but claimed there’s still work to be done. 

“People who think they are going to get to Mars in 2020 and still be around, I think are whistling up the chimney,” she said, prompting laughter in the audience. “When we start thinking about going to the stars, and going beyond earth. We have to really look at [the question]: is human tissue able to do this?” Bondar said.

This wasn’t Bondar’s first visit to Queen’s. In 1997, she was selected for the Brockington Visitorship at Queen’s and delivered a lecture titled “More than Aliens Come from Space.” 

Bondar concluded her lecture with her personal reflections on being an astronaut. 

“When we go into space, of course we are the front people for everybody who is on the ground and it is sometimes embarrassing to get as much attention as we get, when it is other people’s successes,” she said. “It is really the only reason we are here and I am standing in front of you.”

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