Ready to launch

cabin Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, STS-131 mission specialist; Alan Poindexter (right), STS-131 commander; and James P. Dutton Jr., pilot, train in the shuttle mission simulator at Johnson Space Center.

spacesuitDottie Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97, outfitted in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. No matter where she is, Metcalf-Lindenburger said, “I always keep Whitman really near and dear to my heart.”

Web Extra Web Extra: As the March 2010 launch date approaches, visit the Johnson Space Center site for the latest news on the STS-131 space shuttle crew and its mission.

The final countdown begins

After nearly six years of training, astronaut Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97 is more than ready for liftoff.

She and her crewmates on space shuttle Discovery will launch from Kennedy Space Center on March 18, 2010, carrying a multipurpose logistics module filled with scientific equipment for the International Space Station laboratory.

But Dottie’s adventure really began in 2004 when the Vancouver, Wash., earth science and astronomy teacher surfed the NASA Web site to answer a student’s question: “How do you go to the bathroom in space?”

Along with that explanation, she found an unexpected opportunity: NASA was looking for educator astronauts. Dottie applied and was selected for the astronaut candidate class of 2004.

In December 2008, she was assigned to shuttle mission STS-131, targeted to launch in March 2010. In the meantime, she continues to train and work at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. She and her husband, Jason Metcalf-Lindenburger ’99, live in Seabrook, Texas, with their daughter Cambria. Jason teaches middle school history.

Dottie talked to Whitman Magazine via telephone from Johnson Space Center about her training, excitement about the mission, the challenges of balancing home and work, and one specific question inquiring Whitties surely want answered.

WHITMAN MAGAZINE: “So, how DO you go to the bathroom in space?”

Dottie: Very carefully. We each have a urine funnel that attaches to a urine hose; this looks a lot like the end of a vacuum cleaner. We also have a normal toilet seat. You have to strap down; you have some forces you’re dealing with here. You need to make sure that it stays down. You have levers that move to get waste into a different compartment, so odors don’t come back into the cabin. The waste is freeze-dried. And, of course, everything comes back to Earth with us.

“On any day here, I may move from Russian classes to electrical classes. I have to be a jack-of-all-trades. My Whitman liberal arts education and getting really involved served me well. I’m looking forward to wearing a Whitman T-shirt into space!”
— Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97

WM: How long will you be in space, and what will your in-flight duties include?

Dottie: It’s a 12-day mission. I’m going to be on the flight deck for ascent and entry. I am a flight engineer, mission specialist 2. Once in orbit, I will handle the shuttle robotic arm operations as well as serve as an intra-vehicle crew member for the spacewalks. I’ll run the time line and checklists for these spacewalks, and I’ll transfer supplies. Our mission is to bring a multipurpose logistic module to the space station. Basically it’s a U-Haul. Our six-person crew will transfer that equipment onto the shuttle and take equipment off that returns to ground.

WM: Describe your average day now that you have been assigned to a specific shuttle mission.

Dottie: There is no average day. There are things I do regularly in a week. I try to fly in a T-38 (our training jet) at least once a week. That helps me keep up with my checklist use and multitasking in a dynamic environment. We may be in a simulator during the week, attending classes. This week I had classes in Russian, space walking and photography — we take all the pictures you get to look at, and we have to know how to do it. There are specific classes to learn the systems on board. I need to keep those fresh in my head. There is a training team assigned to each mission, and they will follow us for the whole year. That way they know all the problems that we encounter early on. They know our learning styles. We become like a family. I get to work out every day. That’s a part of our schedule. I love that! I traveled to Florida to help with the shuttle launch of Hubble. I do tours for guests, attend receptions, talk to the media. My life is a real balancing act, making sure I get time with Jason and our daughter. I work pretty regular hours, except sometimes we work weekends to support other missions or to travel.

WM: What message would you like to share with your daughter Cambria someday about why space travel — and this mission — is important?

Dottie: I hope to share with her that because of our mission, we are able to continue science and exploration on the International Space Station. We are pushing what humans know about their environment, specifically the microgravity environment. We are asking “what can we learn?” Are there going to be new medical advances, new ways of doing engineering? And we know there will be more answers. We’ve already had so many advances. I’m looking forward to future discoveries. I’m also excited about the wonderment of being in a new environment, and always pushing our limits. Cambria is 2 years old and tries to push her physical limits every day on how high she can climb on the playground, how high she can climb on anything. Humans don’t sit still very well. We tend to wander, explore and ask “why?”

WM: What excites you the most about this opportunity to be aboard a space shuttle?

Dottie: I am most excited to be working with a team going into space to accomplish a job. I respect all these team members. Some were my own NASA training classmates. Others, I already respected from having watched them fly. Personally, I think it will be pretty cool to float around, and I want to look out at the stars. I have always enjoyed looking at the night sky. It will be incredible to be able to see our atmosphere.

WM: Are there moments now when your Whitman experience is right there with you?

Dottie: I always keep Whitman really near and dear to my heart. The most important experiences were the opportunities to do research, working with (geology professor) Bob Carson. He was my Keck (Geology Consortium) adviser, and those opportunities — five to six weeks out in the wilderness, pushing myself, learning how to work with a team — were really important. We do those things here. The summer of 2005 we attended National Outdoor Leadership School as a crew. It was a lot like those Keck trips. You’re responsible for yourself, and you’re responsible for your team.

WM: In what other ways did Whitman prepare you for this moment?

Dottie: When I was at Whitman I purposely got involved in many different things: sports, clubs, activities. On any day here, I may move from Russian classes to electrical classes. I have to be a jack-of-all-trades. My Whitman liberal arts education and getting really involved served me well. I’m looking forward to wearing a Whitman T-shirt into space!

WM: What will you do after your mission is complete?

Dottie: I hope to fly again.

WM: Do you want to return to teaching someday?

DOTTIE: I love teaching; I love the energy of the students and the unique questions they ask. However, if I return, I would like to become a professor. That will require me to go back to a university for further specialization. Or, I’ve also thought about teaching abroad with my husband. At this point, though, I’m just focusing on the mission.

team Launching into space with her STS-131 team, shown here, is one of the things Metcalf-Lindenburger, third from left, looks forward to most. She learned the crucial importance of being able to depend on teammates when, as a Whitman student, she spent weeks at a time in the wilderness on Keck Geology Consortium treks.

vr Metcalf-Lindenburger, left, and Rick Mastracchio, also a mission specialist, train in the virtual reality lab in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility. “This type of computer interface, paired with virtual reality training hardware and software, helps to prepare the entire team for dealing with space station elements,” according to NASA.

Photos courtesy of NASA