The next generation
Astronaut inspires budding researchers

Yellowknife (Mar 17/00) - Worlds happily collided at Sir Alexander Mackenzie school last week.

Just a day after the school staged its annual science fair, Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar dropped in on her way back to Toronto after visiting Tuktut Nogait Park, as well as making side trips to Samuel Hearne high school and Angik school in Paulatuk.

"I just like kids to be inspired about learning," she said, as she signed autographs in the school library last Friday morning. "And to help them start thinking outside themselves and their classrooms."

A university professor and a medical doctor, Bondar became the first Canadian woman to travel to outer space when she joined the crew of NASA's space shuttle Discovery in 1992. She said that trip helped give her a whole new perspective on the Earth, and she described her current foray into the fields of environmental awareness and photography as part of her, "planetary exploration phase."

Having given up her teaching posts last summer, Bondar said she is now fully immersed in a millennium project called Passionate Vision -- Intimate Portraits of Canada's National Parks.

She said that with her visit to Tuktut Nogait, she has photographed 34 of the country's 39 national parks -- including some from space -- and has to complete her work soon since Passionate Vision will premiere as an exhibition in Ottawa this June before being launched as a book in the fall.

"My research was at a point where I thought it would be good if the next generation of scientists could take the torch and run with it, so I left the university in June and felt this project was worth the risk," she said. "It frankly helps to have someone with my profile working with the environment, and having seen the Earth from space is what attracted me to parks and the theme of respecting their diversity."

Bondar said she loved her visit to Ellesmere Island. She also hopes to come back and see the parks in different seasons -- when she has more time and is able to kayak their rivers and climb their mountains. She added that the relative isolation of the North and Canada's parks gives the country an advantage in preserving the beauty of its natural heritage.

"I just think we're better situated to take lessons from other places in the world that have not managed their environment and resources well," she said. "Co-management is already in place here."

In addressing the SAM students, Bondar also said her love for science started in her youth -- as vice- president of the science club at Sir James Dunn school in Sioux Ste. Marie, Ont. Her first project involved tent caterpillars and she took her science pin with her when she travelled to space.

Telling the kids of her experiences, and describing her space helmet as a goldfish bowl, Bondar soon had the young minds racing between Earth and the Milky Way. Asked why they might think space travel to be important, the children offered a variety of intriguing answers, ranging from to seeing what else is out there and finding and exploring other planets, to discovering if aliens really exist.