Travelling in space is apparently relatively safe, at least when compared to the dangers found here on Earth. Roberta Bondar discovered this when she went on a photography expedition in Libya just as the war in Iraq was beginning.
For one thing, there were the assault rifles hidden under the seats of the armoured Toyota SUVs she was travelling in. The six bodyguards who accompanied her -- a gift from one of Moammar Gadhafi's sons -- tried gallantly to keep the guns out of sight, but scientists are trained to note details, especially hair-raising ones. The bodyguards, says Bondar, "did an excellent job."
They certainly brought her, and her photos, back in one piece. Those pictures -- undulating dunes in the Ubari Sand Sea, the great Roman ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha -- are on display now at Hoopers Gallery in east London. The crisp, classical prints seem slightly incongruous in super-trendy Clerkenwell, where grime and self-conscious irony are more often the order of the day.
Being a potential target isn't something new to Bondar. As Canada's first woman astronaut, and since then a noted photographer, she has a high-profile name and takes suitable precautions while travelling in danger zones. (Although, she laughs, "People think I'm rich and famous, but I'm only famous.") When she visited Libya in 2003, the country still had not opened up to Westerners the way it has in the past year, and drug-traffickers presented a serious problem. Just before she arrived, a dozen Western tourists were kidnapped there.
Smugglers, as it turned out, were the least of her problems: It was the sand that was the real menace. One night, a sandstorm sprang up, and Bondar tried to capture it on video, but could barely keep the camera still. Her other equipment -- a panorama and an architectural camera -- she kept in waterproof bags. Her tent, which was lashed to an SUV, was sealed tight but still the sand seeped in. It got inside her headscarf, her mouth, her eyes.
"It was like millions of needles searing the skin," she says. "But I'd look up at the sky and the amazing thing was you could still see the stars."
It was in that sky, of course, that her life was changed, and a certain aesthetic born. She came back from her 1992 trip on the shuttle Discovery not only with a missionary zeal about documenting the Earth's fragility, but also the planet's extraordinary colours.
"When I looked away from Earth and into the black and white of space, it was a very dead light. The stars don't twinkle. It's old light. It's impenetrable. I decided when I came back I wanted to somehow share this sense of awe I had about looking at the incredible colours the human eye is able to see," she said.
The colour prints in her London show do have an otherworldly feel. It may just be projecting, given what we know about Bondar's life history, but the orange-red dunes of the Ubari Sand Sea do look like they belong on the cover of a sci-fi novel. All they need is for Frank Frazetta to draw in some iron-thighed alien warrior babe.
Bondar is drawn to deserts. She has just returned from photographing California's Death Valley, where unusual amounts of rainfall have created carpets of flowers and an unprecedented river of visitors. For a girl who grew up dreaming about outer space, is the desert such a leap? There's all that emptiness, that aridity, the lack of human mess.
When she was preparing for the photography show, Bondar showed Helen Esmonde, the gallery's co-director, a picture of herself as a child; in it, she was standing next to a miniature rocket ship she'd built. On Discovery, Bondar was taking pictures out of the portholes, and when she touched ground again, she turned her eye to natural landscapes, and also the ruins of ancient civilizations. Says Esmonde, "There are very few people who would epitomize better the fusion of ancient and modern, art and science."
Now, Bondar sees herself in the tradition of other astronauts, like deep-sea diver Scott Carpenter, who returned to Earth but continued to explore. The only catch is that, at 59, she is constantly looking for corporate sponsors to finance her photographic trips. She receives no pension and had to mortgage her house to finance her millennium project of shooting Canada's national parks, which became the book Passionate Vision. Still, you get the sense that the woman with the camera has a mission that life in the private sector just wouldn't fulfill.
Ask her if she feels there is life besides ours in the universe, and she says without hesitation, "Absolutely there is." It is impossible to believe otherwise, she says, a view that was cemented during her voyage in "the tin can."
"We're egocentric life forms, feeling that this is the cradle of civilization, when just statistically speaking there have to be other systems out there. I mean, there are kajillions of billions of stars -- why wouldn't there be other life forms?"