This week, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch where Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. We sat down with Dr. Roberta Bondar — the first women and neurologist to fly in space — to reflect on this landmark event in space exploration and what it meant to both her as an individual and to humanity in general.
Where were you when you watched the Apollo 11 moon landing? How did this moment influence your choice to pursue a career as an astronaut?
I was at my home in Sault Ste. Marie on summer holidays while I was completing my Masters at Western University. I remember it was a nice, sunny day and I went on my back porch and told my dad they had landed on the moon. I had watched it on my black and white television.
For me, it was an affirmation of technology and the ability of humans to step beyond. I felt a special role in this because I had followed them so closely. I had every crest from the Mercury and Apollo missions that my Aunt had sent me while working at Cape Canaveral, and I had always built model rockets. At the time, I wasn’t allowed to fly in the Air Force so I was focused on trying to develop a skill that would be needed in space, so if given the opportunity to participate I would be ready.
How has society changed because of this event?
The Apollo program itself changed society. That mission got people thinking about finding another place in the universe that could help solve our problems here on earth. People, certainly Americans, saw it as an affirmation of it being the greatest technologically-abled society. Worldwide, people viewed it as the next step for humanity.
All of this was mired in the political time of course. The Apollo program carried on, but people got caught up in a lot of things, for one The Vietnam War. We saw a loss of appetite for the space program as people became more focused on the earth and our problems. People didn’t have issues with satellites being sent up to space, but when it came to human flight, they wanted to have a sober second look at funding. Decisions were made from the political powers of the time and the Apollo program was cancelled after a few flights. There was so much hope for this one mission but it tapered off.
What do you hope or expect to see happen in the next 50 years of space exploration?
It’s going to be a very international effort. There’s a thirst to go to mars and asteroids that are past our earth orbit and moon. There is talk of building bases on the moon — if the Americans don’t do it, the Russian will or the Japanese and Chinese. And, if the Russians or Chinese are there, the Americans will be there as well. I think in the next 50 years there will be a huge concern about weaponizing space.
Looking at the past history of human beings and human behaviour, we cycle through these things. The cycles are fueled by technology and enhancements. Talk of nuclear weapons makes people nervous about war so space is kind of the new frontier for people to be looking at.
The real question is how can we maintain a balance of power, but also make sure people maintain the insight and judgement needed to make it a peaceful next 50 years rather than one fought with intimidation and fear. I do trust that we will be in a place where people will try to get to Mars, and that the physiology of space flight will be further explored to lessen its impact on the human body, like bone loss. When we have anniversaries like this, it gives us time to reflect and we have to have hope, hope that good will prevail.
Dr. Roberta Bondar is globally recognized for her pioneering contributions to space medicine research, fine art photography, and environment education. She expanded the horizons of millions when she joined the space shuttle Discovery for its 1992 mission, where she conducted experiments for 18 countries in the International Microgravity Laboratory, a precursor to the International Space Station.
Her highly motivational talks — punctuated by her stunning photographs — focus on change, social responsibility, and our environment.
Interested in learning more about Roberta and what she can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].