Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar

Introduction: Dr. Roberta Bondar, host, astronaut, physician, photographer, and writer

November 17, 2021 Dr. Roberta Bondar Season 1 Episode 0
Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar
Introduction: Dr. Roberta Bondar, host, astronaut, physician, photographer, and writer
Show Notes Transcript

Podcast host Dr. Roberta Bondar introduces the series by interviewing herself! She covers what to expect in future episodes, what she would like to do on a return trip to space, and shares details about the bird migration project she is spearheading with her Foundation (AMASS/Space for Birds).

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Roberta Bondar:

The celebration of the 30th anniversary of my historic spaceflight continues back here on Earth with this podcast series Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar. Now this is an opportunity for you to join me while I explore life, creativity, flexibility and change with my guests, some of the most famous and globally well respected Canadians. In each of these podcasts, we will hear a special guest express personal views about the present and the future. And if you have a deep passion for exploration and inquiry, whether it's through the arts, sciences, or athletics, for example, the storytelling in this series is for those who wander, and those who wonder. Join me now to explore how some of the most notable Canadians exercise their creativity and curiosity in a wide array of fields. Unlike those of the night sky, these stars are within reach. So let's tap into their energy as they enlighten us. Hi, there. This is the first podcast in the series Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar. That would be me. In this segment, as someone who is regularly asked lots of questions by kids and everybody else about space, the environment science, photography, risk, creativity and resilience, for starters, I realized that there were still lots of questions to pose. So I'm kicking off this series with me interviewing me. We all have to start somewhere. And I remember being mesmerized in my youth listening to the radio and serials of adventure and mystery. But for this serial, don't listen for spooky music or the sounds of buzzing airplanes on my podcast. Maybe another time. Let's begin. Great to see you. Dr. Bondar. May I call you Roberta?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Yes, you can call me Roberta 1000s of kids do.

Roberta Bondar:

It's hard to believe that it has been 30 years since you flew in space. How does that make you feel?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Well, besides old you mean? I always think there's wisdom in age. And I'd like to think I'm a little wiser than I was. When I look back on 30 years, some days, it's like 30 minutes, some days, it's like 30 days. I don't know, I keep telling the story over and over. And the story seems to get better. I'm just kidding. But the story is something that matures, I think with history with us, looking back and trying to explain things differently, or maybe trying to find some more detail that one hadn't thought of before in the past. So 30 years is a long time for a lot of people, especially when they're only 20. For me, at my age of well, you can look it up. It just means that I've had a lot of wisdom and a lot of time to think about it. And a lot of time to do things in between based on that spaceflight to try to leverage the experience and leverage the added wisdom that I believe that I gained in my flight.

Roberta Bondar:

What would you like to do if you're able to go into space again?

Roberta Bondar Too:

I'm assuming that you're not suggesting that I fly with a billionaire. But if I had the opportunity to fly again, of course, I'd want to go to the Moon, I never really was that keen on the International Space Station. As the next step for me, it would have been nice to be able to look at the Earth and contribute more to space medicine, for sure from the ISS. But to be able to go to the Moon and look at the geology and to look at something firsthand that people have seen for millennia ever since people just looked up to the sky the first time this is a constant in people's lives, the Earth may have shifted with its continents and with climate change, even in the past with ice ages, etc. But the Moon seem to have been a constant, at least what we think we know about the Moon. So that would be something that that I would like to really see. So I really envy the the next crew of astronauts that are going to go around the Moon, and probably land on the Moon within my lifetime, I hope.

Roberta Bondar:

Tell us about your current project Space for Birds. I understand that it also goes by another title that reflects your collaboration with NASA?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Yes, NASA likes acronyms. Though, we actually call this project initially AMASS, which stands for Avian Migration Aerial, Surface, and Space. That's because we were using three perspectives to look at the corridors of seven species of migratory birds. Now, AMASS wasn't something that a lot of people could wrap their minds around. So we renamed it or additionally named it Space for Birds, which is, I think, is a good thing to talk about, because what we're trying to do is create space that these birds need, especially with their habitats. But also we want to use the space perspective to somehow try to put these migratory corridors which are very, very large, in in context.

Roberta Bondar:

What are the seven species that you're following then?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Well in North America, we started out and continue to follow the very endangered Whooping Crane which is a very large bird about five feet tall with a wingspan of about seven feet. And it nests and grows initially in Wood Buffalo National Park, up in the Northwest Territories, and then it flies about 4200 kilometers, stopping, of course to feed on the way down as it heads to the Gulf Coast of Texas to a place around Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, so that was the first and is the biggest birds of course that we follow. The other birds are also threatened or endangered so we're following the Piping Plover, the Red Knot, the rufa subspecies. Let's see what else we've got our sights on, Sprague's Pipit that are grassland birds, as opposed to one that likes to wetlands or is on the coast. And in Europe, we would like to be able to look at creatures like the Curlew Sandpiper, and Black-tailed Godwit. These are birds that were suggested to us by the United Nations Environment Programme. So we're very keen on on following them as well. We have been looking a bit at the Arctic Tern, it's a little more difficult to photograph in the southern reaches of its migratory corridor. Those are just some of the birds that we have some interest in. We'd like to follow as many birds as we can. And so we take the opportunity, for example, when we're photographing down on the shoreline, we take both video, and still images. And these still images are with very large high resolution cameras. So we can enlarge the image and actually see the banding on different types of birds. And we can report them to the conservation folks. And they can actually tell us where these birds were banded when it was banded, if they've been seen before. So we add to the the science of understanding bird migration. We also are photographing from helicopters to give us the aerial perspective. And I just mean I love anything that flies let's face it. And I really enjoyed taking my large Hasselblad cameras and photographing out the window at the Earth below. And sometimes, especially in the nesting area, we actually can have a Whooping Crane, they're the only ones we can see from the air, the other ones are way too small. We can photograph it. And also on the staging route down in Saskatchewan we can we can we've actually photographed some of the big flock of these of these birds, when they get together to stage before they actually dissipate into families or fly with Sandhill Cranes. Some of the more immature birds down to the Aransas area, when I look at some of the aerial work we're trying to do with some of the other birds is basically to look at their habitat, and to look at relationships that we can best appreciate from the air instead of from the ground. And the reason we don't use drones is because the drones well first of all, they're forbidden in any National Wildlife Refuge or National Park in North America. But they can also scare the birds. So the helicopters can fly high enough up. And I have telephoto lenses on my cameras that we can get very high resolution images of these of the habitat areas in which the birds need to stay and rest and feed on their way down from the their nesting area down to their wintering overwintering area.

Roberta Bondar:

Can you give us an example of the danger or complexity involved in completing this project? I imagine at least in a helicopter, you are at some risk?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Well, it's interesting, you would ask that question. Because traveling these days is filled with danger. It's filled with the unexpected. One has to be able to embrace change because it comes at us all the time, whether it's getting tested before we get to the airport getting tested before we go back to the airport, keeping masks on socially distancing. Trying to keep up with the latest news trying to be be concerned just about a personal health without even thinking about the next level of danger, which is getting in a car and driving to these these various areas. Because these field trips mean that these birds are not right by the airport. They tend to be in highly protected areas. Luckily, we have developed great partnerships with Parks Canada, for example, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. And they all try to help us get into these areas to provide a better path for us and actually provide us some on ground support. For example, this coming in the coming months, we're going to be looking at bird banding down in the National Wildlife Refuge with the Whooping Cranes. Now that's going to be something they're big birds to have to they can't catch them in the net, so they have to lure them in with some food and then very carefully, hold them and draw blood make sure that they understand what kind of what gender the bird is, and they tagged the birds may even put a geo locator on them, they're getting much smaller now cellular services is much better to try to follow these birds with. And then we also are going to hopefully visit a prescribed burn in the same National Wildlife Refuge that is used to get rid of some of the invasive species or at least keep it down to a dull roar. And that improves the habitat for Whooping Cranes, we've got a couple of relatively dangerous things to do. Plus, we're going to be going up hopefully to the Midwest of the United States, in the springtime during the migration from National Wildlife Refuge back up to the Wood Buffalo National Park area to nest where we can perhaps take a helicopter over some of the areas to photograph the habitat in the American Midwest, because agriculture, it has pluses and minuses for the birds. But also things like building wind farms. Whooping Cranes, for example, like going, maybe five kilometers out of their the way to avoid one of these wind farms or avoid a tower. We don't know what's going to happen in the future when there's more intensity of wind as a green energy source. So there's a lot of danger involved, not just for for us, but also for the birds. And we want to be sure that we do this in the most non invasive way possible to be able to, to bring the kind of view from space, from the air and on the surface that we can for individuals so that they don't miss out on a reason why they should protect the habitat for these endangered birds.

Roberta Bondar:

How has COVID changed your fieldwork?

Roberta Bondar Too:

As with everybody, it really curtailed travel for a whole year. So that meant the whole migratory corridor from north to south. So if the north all the stopover areas, staging areas, we couldn't go to photograph, we'd like to get out when they're in certain areas so that we can understand the habitat better. What is it they need for these for their migration, safe, safe migration. So that's that's, that's a huge impact is, especially at my age, moving a life out a year out of my life, where I haven't, I haven't been able to be as productive as normally, I wanted to be to be able to really work on this project and bring it to a close to move on to the phase of phase two.

Roberta Bondar:

I don't know if you have a favorite bird or not, but you must have some kind of bird that you like better than others. And if you do why?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Oh you're right, it's hard to it's hard to pick one bird. I mean, in the wintertime, I must say I do like to see the red Cardinals because they're quite a contrast against the snow or Snowy Owls, because that's when we see them. It's also great down in the Midwest, when we look at some of the creatures that gathered together that get along with each other in some of these National Wildlife Refuges. And I look at some of the long fliers like the Arctic Tern and what they go through and then their migration, it there's so amazing. Internationally, I think there are beautiful birds I mean, albatrosses in Africa. We're very interested in the Lesser Flamingo, it's the other species that I didn't mention earlier. But it's one that is, is amazing. It's just an amazing creature. Its heads upside down when it feeds. It has very limited number of eggs it lays. limited number of progeny. And really, its whole life depends on nesting in this one particular salt lake, 80% of the world's natural population, nest in this one lake so you can imagine if anything happened to that, like it would really wipe out all these birds. So that's why they're they're threatened. So those are very beautiful birds. So I it's hard, hard to pick them. In Africa, I also like the Lilac-breasted Roller. I like the Bachelor when it's up in a tree looking down. I love some of the majestic owls. I mean, just, they're incredible things and species that I have not seen. I just, there's just not enough time in my life left to be able to even think about picking one bird over another bird. But I do have an interest in certainly in birds that I haven't seen before. Or at least a photograph some of the behaviors that I haven't seen before in birds that I've already photographed.

Roberta Bondar:

And what about flying? How did you get interested in flying?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Well the birds came first, maybe even Superman in the old, in the old days. I remember one time putting on a red cape and red socks and jumping off the bed. And it didn't do very well when I hit the floor. And I think my mother came up try to what the heck I was doing anyway, figured out pretty quickly that it took more than a cape and red socks to be like Superman. Birds seem to have it all. They were free to fly in the sky. And they ran into difficulties a lot because of disease or things that humans would put in their path. So I think I became very protective of birds. And I admired how they how they flew. So now feathers become a big thing with me. I love to look at feathers. I think they're extraordinary how you can, I know what DNA you can do a lot these days, but you can look at a feather from a bird and experts can just tell you what that bird is and how old that bird is. Because birds do molt and drop their feathers. But anyway, that's more than you asked me. You had something else in mind?

Roberta Bondar:

Well, how was your background enabled you to succeed in this project?

Roberta Bondar Too:

It's true that I did not study ornithology when I was a student at the University of Guelph. I did a broader degree in zoology. But I did do in my final year, some veterinary courses, because as though I wanted to be a medical doctor, there were no medical courses there, the veterinary courses were the closest thing I could come to. So I learned about, I think I learned more about working with animals that couldn't speak for themselves. And the idea that birds seemed to be so fragile, and their bones are hollow, and they have such a special gift. I think that's kind of what really attracted me. So my background as a physician, and as as a zoologist, and my professional photography background, and as an astronaut, all of that comes together with this project to bring together the disparate parts of a migratory corridor. They try to say, hey, you know, astronauts fly over international boundaries without permission without looking at anything we fly in space, we float. And birds do very much the same kind of thing, migratory birds. So all of that puts me in a different thinking space, and how to be creative about developing things for environment education. And my background is in neurology, which is, I must admit, I did sub specialize in neuro ophthalmology, which is how we see and view the world around us. And that has enabled me to understand how the brain really likes taking visual imagery in and how it sees better how it allows us to participate in the world.

Roberta Bondar:

How do you feel about birding as a pastime?

Roberta Bondar Too:

COVID has really helped with this birding to become something that a lot more people are doing. First of all, people want to get out of doors, which is a great thing. It's really helpful for mental health. But birds are things that we assume are going to be there. And so people start reading more about the impact of climate change on on birds, not just the habitat, but on their food sources, on diseases that might affect them, on where they're going now, because climate has changed when they lay their eggs and polar bears, for example, are coming closer to colonies of birds that are laying your eggs and birds, bears get very, very hungry and they could wipe out a whole colony of birds. So I think the idea for us to learn about climate change is is very important in this in this time, we have to understand what we as individuals can do. So birding is a great way of introducing people to think about change and how it affects other species on the planet.

Roberta Bondar:

Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share with us?

Roberta Bondar Too:

Well, I hope everyone will join you and your podcast series Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar, kind of a catchy title. I hope I've been able to contribute something today because you asked about some of my favorite things, and I think it could have gone on for a long time, but I really had to hold myself back. I look forward to listening to your podcast. And I wish you all kinds of success.

Roberta Bondar:

Come back again for the next Sharing Space with Dr. Roberta Bondar podcast when my guest will be astronaut and physician Dr. David Saint-Jacques. Thanks for joining me