When it seems like the world has cracked along its seams like a worn-out old basketball, it's helpful to talk to someone who has, literally, risen above it all. Try to find an astronaut for reassurance, if you can. There are a few of them around, and they have remarkable perspective.
Roberta Bondar, Canada's first female astronaut, has carried this perspective with her since the space shuttle Discovery touched down 25 years ago at Edwards Air Force base after eight days in space. It's true that the toilet stopped working midway through the mission, and most of the fruit flies they brought along for an experiment ended up dead, but that did not take away from the grandeur of what she saw up there, and the sense of wonder she brought home: "Human beings have a higher calling in terms of what we can do in our lifetime on the planet," Dr. Bondar says. "It's almost a Star Trek kind of vision. But we shouldn't have to go off the Earth to find it.
"Being in space, seeing the world as one planet like that, I realized no one has a right over any other person on this planet."
Not that space travel made Dr. Bondar an unquestioning optimist: At the age of 71, she has pointed things to say about gender diversity in astronaut selection, and as a neurologist and scientist she is not, shall we say, happy with the post-truth world.
When we meet at her north Toronto home, she fist bumps instead of shaking hands, a consequence of tendon injury in that hand. She's part of a long-term study on the effects of space travel on human health, but the sample size is small – around 500 people have been in space – and an even smaller segment than that are women.
When she flew in 1992, nine years after having been chosen for the program by the Canadian Space Agency, she was the 18th woman to travel in space. "It's 25 years later," she says, "and how many Canadian women have flown? Julie [Payette] and me."
When the Canadian Space Agency put out a call last year for applicants to the astronaut program, it made a special effort to reach out to women, since fewer than a third of the applicants were female. In Dr. Bondar's year, that figure was only 10 per cent out of 4,300 applicants. Progress is not exactly moving at the speed of light. "The astronauts we have, the two new guys, are just great. But you have to wonder, are there women out there who would be just as great?"
Part of the problem is institutional – a system designed with one kind of user in mind. When she flew, for example, the gloves used in a pressurized chamber were much too large for her hands, and difficult to use. Being Canada's first female astronaut had its challenges not only in space, but below. The Toronto Star discovered this the hard way when it ran the headline, "Bondar spends hours tidying up shuttle." Outrage, in those pre-Twitter days, was channelled through the newspapers' switchboard.
Not that she had much time to think about controversy up there. There were experiments to be conducted on crystals and bacteria, carrot cells and human anatomy (Dr. Bondar's short-sightedness disappeared in orbit, and she was able temporarily to ditch her glasses). Occasionally she would take time from her research to look through the shuttle's windows – the "light-sucking black" of space, and below, the miracle of our planet. "I'm a scientist," she says, "I know the Earth, third planet from the sun, yadda yadda, but the reality of seeing it from up there – it was like, oh, wow."
That sense of wonder is reflected on the walls of her home, which are filled with large-scale photographs she's taken around the world, all of which reflect her fascination with pattern, colour and scale: a pair of cranes poised for flight in Kenya, Roman ruins in Libya, snow-covered boughs in a Toronto cemetery. The Roberta Bondar Foundation, which is devoted to reconnecting people to the outdoors, runs a contest in which students are judged on their photographs and essays about the natural world. There are six schools named for her in Canada, and when I suggest that students must be thrilled to meet her, she says, dryly, "I think they're amazed that I'm still alive."
This leads us to the subject of critical thinking, and how it should be taught. It must be odd, I suggest, for a scientist and explorer to live in a world that seems less rational in many ways than 25 years ago – a world where belief outmanoeuvres reason at every turn. "It is very disturbing to see policies being made that are not based in fact," Dr. Bondar says. But, as a neuroscientist, she's also aware that the brain can be a faulty and treacherous decision-maker. The need to teach research skills and critical thinking becomes even more imperative.
"The brain needs to have some kind of truth, whether it's in music or painting or photography," she says. "Otherwise, we have no sense where the truth lies, and we become lost."