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In the ever-changing orbit of the Passionate Earthling

Astronaut Roberta Bondar stands beside a stamp featuring her likeness at the John H. Chapman Space Centre in St-Hubert, Que., on Friday, Sept. 26, 2003. The stamp was one of eight unveiled by Canada Post to honor Canadian astronauts.

Andre Pichette/CP/Andre Pichette/CP

'Someone said, 'You can't use this. It's not serious enough.' " She screws up her handsome face and shrugs her shoulders. "But who cares?"

With that, Roberta Bondar hands me her business card. Job title? "Passionate Earthling."

"Changing Earthling" would be even better - she is a perfect specimen of transmogrification, an example to other members of her species in

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her understanding that "you don't know what you can become. ...

"At the end of it all," she says, "we don't know what life is going to do for us, and we'll never know what we are capable of unless we challenge ourselves to do it."

In high school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., her best subjects were English and French.

In the public consciousness, Dr. Bondar is defined by her eight-day space mission in 1992. But that's not how she sees herself. "I think of the astronaut stuff as an anomaly," she says dismissively. The world's first neurologist in space and Canada's first female astronaut, she is far more than her lengthy list of degrees and accomplishments that currently includes Chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

"I hate that female thing," she adds later. "Do we say first male astronaut?" She fills the pause with a quizzical expression. "It's like manhole covers. Who ever calls them womanhole covers?"

It is late March, and Dr. Bondar, now 62, is in her delightful cottage-like house in the Lawrence Park neighbourhood of Toronto. The wooden floors are tinted the colour of grass; the walls are white; klieg lights dot the ceiling like stars, shining down on her large, spectacular photographs, windows into beautiful landscapes.

It's a little planet in here, and from a sofa in one corner, she is in full flight, zooming through subjects and frames of mind. In an hour and a half, she passes through art, science, gender, childhood, her parents, space, career, defiance, humour, commitment and a little bit of past bitterness.

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She is careful to bring along her passengers, and she slows down any suggestion of ego that she hears in herself. The Passionate Earthling doesn't want anyone to think she's from Mars.

Midway though the interview, her assistant pokes her head into the living room. "Roberta's a great entertainer," she offers, apropos of nothing. "She likes her wine, and she likes it very good. She has it all listed on her computer," she adds helpfully, before ducking out again.

"She just wants to make sure that you know I am a human being," Dr. Bondar explains, rolling her eyes with amused forbearance for her assistant, whose title could be "Passionate Loyalist."

Dr. Bondar's NASA space mission may have been short, but it had a powerful influence on her. "As an explorer in space, you don't see anybody on the planet with the naked eye, so I look at a planet that's pastel, and people are removed from it," she says. "So, in my landscapes, there's a starkness, a crispness. There are life forms, but no human beings." Dr. Bondar has published four bestselling books of photography. Passionate Vision, her book on Canada's 41 national parks, was recently released in soft cover.

She "honours the horizon" as an important element in many of her photographs. "Most of my stuff deals with how the crust meets the atmosphere rather than the atmosphere meeting the universe."

Can she ever let the scientist in her take a back seat?

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"No," she shoots back. "Well, I could be flooded with music, I guess," she says upon reflection, allowing a long exhalation. "But soon, I'd start to think in my head, like I did in music appreciation class in Grade 9, and begin to listen to just one instrument and see if I could pick out sounds and frequencies. I suppose that would [hark]back to physics or something."

The way she talks is exhausting. It's all long sentences and thoughts pushing one against the other, like kids in a schoolyard. But she realizes the limitations of her prodigious intelligence. Her time in space made her see what her brain could not analyze. "You see this huge black thing, and the Earth is this tiny little thing. I had absolutely no idea how even to frame this. ... When I came back, I really think for the first time in my life, I had this insight that I had no idea what this thing - whatever creates all this stuff - is."

After her mission, she worked for another 10 years in space medicine research, studying how the human body recovers from unusual environments. She didn't want to leave the space program, she says. "They did not renew my contract."

Did she feel bitter?

"For years I did. I'm fine about it now. ... The thing that suffered the most was my ability to have a pension. I'm still working and I'm trying to make use of all my skills."

She makes most of her income from speaking engagements. The kind of photography she does yields little profit. For Passionate Vision, she received a $700,000 grant from the Millennium Bureau of Canada, some corporate donations and took out a mortgage on her house. "I didn't get a penny out of the project," she says easily, adding that the cost of travel and other expenses totalled $2.1-million over two years. "I'm not sorry I did it. I met some wonderful Canadians."

Still, of all her pursuits, "medicine is by far the best thing I ever did," she says, explaining she was able to "claw my mother back from death for six years and I was able to resuscitate my father." Her mother died a year ago at age 89. Her father died in 1985, age 70. She has assisted in surgery at Toronto hospitals and continues her involvement with neurological illnesses such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Mostly, what inspires her is memories of her parents, especially her mother, Mildred. The biggest childhood lesson was the importance of sharing knowledge. Every summer, when she returned home from another university term - she financed her own way through 18 years in higher education - her parents would make her tea and ask what she had learned. "They had no money and they were not able to go to school." Her mother later went back to school and became a teacher, she says.

Dr. Bondar talks about her life as evidence of what humans can do. Its trajectory, preoccupations, pleasures and disappointments feel examined, like a project in a laboratory. Upstairs, she shows me a small cabinet that contains memorabilia.

"Look," she says, with enduring wonder. "Here's my first microscope. I got it when I was 10." She touches the glass door with the tip of one forefinger. Inside, there's a child's test-tube rack, a rock, a pennant, little figures she collected, among other things.

They are the early artifacts of a life she could not have planned.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More


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