NASA promotional poster for Shuttle mission STS-131. Metcalf-Lindenburger is third from right.
Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97 soon will have some crucial job responsibilities. Among them: helping to make sure she and her co-workers get back to Earth safely.
The Whitman alumna and former science teacher is one of seven astronauts making final preparations to take off April 5 aboard NASA’s shuttle Discovery for the STS-131 mission to the International Space Station, which orbits about 200 miles above the Earth.
She said that during the 12-day mission one of her most important responsibilities will be the operation of a robotic-arm and sensor used to detect any damage to the shuttle’s tiles, its thermal protection system, caused during the launch or the mission.
She also will be the communications link between NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston and astronauts Clay Anderson and Rick Mastracchio during their three space walks. And she will “run the timeline and checklists” during the walks and transfer supplies.
Goals for the space walks include replacing an ammonia tank assembly, retrieving a Japanese experiment from the station’s exterior and switching out a rate gyro assembly on the station’s truss structure.
In a recent NASA news conference, she shared her excitement about the upcoming mission. Later, in a phone interview, she gave a nod to her alma mater and wanted to thank her dedicated Whitman professors who were an inspiration to her — and her fellow Whitman students who inspired her, some of whom plan to attend the launch.
One of those fellow students will be Jason Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97, her husband of almost 10 years and a seventh-grade social studies teacher.
Dottie was an earth science and astronomy teacher in Vancouver, Wash., when she applied to NASA in 2004 to be an educator astronaut. Jason said there were many qualified applicants, but he thinks NASA chose her in part because she is an extremely hard worker, as she was at Whitman, and she has great team-building and relationships skills.
Dottie credits Whitman for many of those skills and said that college was “an amazing experience.”
“Whitman is not only where I got my education but a place where I had a total life experience for four years,” she said. “In teaching I obviously used my science, but then again my RA [resident assistant] skills came in handy ...”
She also was a Whitman cross country runner and said her athletic experiences enabled her to coach her school’s cross county team as well as students competing in the science Olympiad.
From Whitman, Metcalf-Lindenburger went on to a teaching career. It was a question from one of her students in 2004 that ultimately took her from teaching to the launch pad: She was surfing the NASA Web site to find an answer to how astronauts use the bathroom in outer space when she read NASA was looking for astronauts. She applied and was accepted.
Six years of training later, life has changed. The Metcalf-Lindenburger family now lives in Texas and there is a daughter, three-year-old Cambria. Jason said Cambria has mastered saying “3-2-1 blast-off” and knows her Mom is going into space, but is confused and remains confused thinking that Grandma and other family members are going, too.
Jason, very supportive of Dottie, does admit to sometimes having a little “job envy” when they tell each other their most notable moments of the day, and hers are usually things like doing barrel rolls in the training jets. He said he remembers one day in particular when her most memorable moment was something absolutely thrilling and his, after thinking about it for awhile, was when a student threw up in class.
Dottie said she sometimes has surreal moments, such as when she writes “astronaut” on her IRS form. She wonders if the IRS employee reading it has a moment of skepticism – a “Yeah, sure you’re an astronaut” type reaction. She and Jason don’t use the word much. She typically just tells people she works for NASA, without adding the astronaut part. Their life together focuses more on the important daily stuff — who’s going to pick up Cambria from daycare and what’s for dinner and such.
Dottie will take into space some things she loves, foremost a family picture. Whitman College is going, too, both in the astronaut-educator’s heart and visibly in cloth form: Watch for the astronaut wearing the blue Whitman T-shirt.