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Today in History

Jan. 19, 1992

(This article originally appeared Sunday, Jan. 19, 1992, just days before Roberta Bondar became Canada's first woman in space on shuttle mission STS - 42.)

On the threshold of a dream

WASHINGTON Roberta Lynn Bondar was a skinny, blue - eyed, 15 - year - old high school student in Sault Ste. Marie when she heard U.S. President John F. Kennedy declare in his inaugural address the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

She never dreamed that day that her day would come; that she would become the first Canadian woman in space exactly 31 years later.

``This is more than a dream come true. This is a miracle,'' she told the Sunday Sun in an earlier interview. ``I'm thrilled beyond words.''

Whatever you do, don't pinch Roberta Bondar, five - feet and six inches, 127 pounds of pure Space Business and sheer flesh, blood and guts.

If this really is a dream, she doesn't want to wake up until the U.S. space shuttle Discovery lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California, just north of Los Angeles, at 10:06 a.m. Toronto time Jan. 29.

``The most fun is the reaction of my family and friends,'' she says. ``They are so excited and so proud.''

So, too, is the entire country proud of the second Canadian ever to blast off into space. The first was Marc Garneau, a payload specialist on the Challenger shuttle mission Oct. 5 - 13, 1984.

Bondar is one of only the first two non - American astronauts to take part in a U.S. space mission since 1985.

The launch is scheduled for 8:54 a.m. Wednesday, from Cape Canaveral, Fla. It is an eight - day mission to study the impact on humans of weightlessness in space.

Bondar is one of the six original Canadian astronauts picked in December 1983. She began her astronaut training in 1984. In 1989, she was named one of two candidates for the next experimental Discovery space trip. The following year, she was selected the Canadian astronaut for the mission, beating out her 55 - year - old rival, Toronto native Ken Money.

A few months later, she began her intensive training for the mission, the 45th shuttle flight and Discovery's 15th, at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration centre in Huntsville, Ala.

Over the past 18 months, her health has been monitored more closely than President George Bush's. NASA likes astronauts who are flawlessly healthy, not too old, but also not too young. The operative words in the screening process are wise, experienced, calm, cool and collected. Articulateness and ambition are qualities that don't hurt either. No Weenies Allowed, NASA warns.

``You have to separate your natural human emotions from your scientific work and training,'' Bondar explains. ``You have to because the situation can be very stressful - the long hours, people watching you all the time . . . the fact that the smallest mistake can be so costly.''

Can anyone, especially Roberta Bondar and her loved ones, ever forget the explosion that instantly killed all seven astronauts aboard the Challenger in January 1986? One of the victims was civilian woman Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher.

``My parents, of course, are a bit apprehensive,'' Bondar confesses. ``But I brought them down for Marc's (Garneau) launch in 1984. That helped.''

Since then, there have been other, widely publicized screwups in the U.S. space program, like the embarrassing camera problems with the $1.5 - billion Hubble Space Telescope (it needed glasses, it turned out), or the tardy discovery of a dangerous fuel leak that grounded the Atlantis and Columbia shuttles for months in 1990.

NASA also had to ground two astronauts, one for air stunts that resulted in a collision, the other for a near - collision with a commercial jet. Heavy - duty stuff, not to mention the horrible PR that resulted. NASA was not amused. Neither was Congress, which threatened to halt the entire space program.

But recession and all, the Bush administration remains determined to one day build a state - of - the - art, $30 - billion space station.

Also in the works are a $50 - billion network of space satellites to watch Earth, plus Vice - President Dan Quayle's personal baby, a $400 - billion project to put humans on Mars.

Over the next five years, NASA plans another 60 shuttle flights.

On this one, Bondar, a neurologist and medical doctor, is assigned to find out how to prevent space travellers from getting sick. Alka Seltzer, Pepto, Tums and Bromo evidently don't cut the mustard in space.

Bondar is among seven astronauts on the mission. She will conduct her experiments in a made - to - measure space module inside Discovery.

The other non - American on board Discovery will be German scientist Ulf Merbold of the European Space Agency. A dozen or so Canadian scientists on the ground will be among 200 space experts from 16 countries involved in what NASA mysteriously calls the ``investigations.''

For Canada, still a bit - player in the space industry (our space agency's PR was fashioned by Watergate), this mission is a remarkable bargain. The total cost is a staggering $600 million, of which we pay merely a fraction of 1%. Yet we still get all the goodies, including a brand new celebrity.

But Bondar, for all the pride she takes in her work and all the excitement she feels about the launch and the mission, does not feel like the Wayne Gretzky of Canadian science, not even as the first Canadian woman in space.

``I have no problem with affirmative action at the lower levels, where women need to be given opportunities to gain knowledge and experience,'' she says.

But even if that's how she got her career launch into space research, she refuses to believe it bought her ticket to Cape Caneveral.

``Once you have reached a certain level of achievement in your field, there is no room for that (affirmative action). It would be foolish to make such important assignments on the basis of sex. There is too much at stake.''

If not for women, then for what is she doing this crazy thing?

``Gosh, you have to ask? Who could possibly turn down an opportunity like this? It's once in a lifetime,'' she says, clearly acknowledging that by the time, if ever, the U.S. sends humans to Mars and beyond, she'll be well advanced in age with only memories of what happened back in January 1992.

But, Roberta, tell the truth: Aren't you just a tiny bit scared?

``Sure. It's impossible not to imagine that moment after you've said goodbye to your family and you board that shuttle, and you're bound to wonder if that's the last time.''

On Wednesday at Cape Canaveral, where history has been made so many times before, Roberta Bondar will do it again. Eyewitnesses will include her historic predecessor, Marc Garneau, and the Earthlings who matter the most to her: the Bondar family.

And as all of Canada shares the countdown on TV, should we cross our fingers for luck and pray for her safety?

``Just tell them to hum to themselves my favorite song,'' Bondar says, ``Canada's national anthem. Because I know that's what I'll be doing at the time.''