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Everyone Sees the Astronaut

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97

Written by Sierra Dickey ’15
Photo by Matt Banderas

NASA has flown over 350 people into space on five different vehicles since 1981, but Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97 seems to embody the era like no other. A crew member on one of the last ever shuttle trips, one of four women ever to be in space at the same time, and a highly visible participant in the Educator Astronaut Program—which brings American educators into NASA’s astronaut corps—Metcalf-Lindenburger’s experience at NASA touches upon much of what made the era of the shuttle so iconic.

But central as she might be to a NASA golden age, today, she would like to spend her time talking about other things. Namely teaching, the profession that brought her to spaceflight in the first place, and a complex art that still too few people revere (even after NASA tried to prove their worth by sending them skyward).

I spoke to Metcalf-Lindenburger on the phone as she and her nine-year-old daughter Cambria were driving east to Whitman to contribute to a panel on teaching. From my perch in Vermont, I remembered the high desert they cruised through like the surface of a distant planet—all beige and brown, the flora horizontal, and the distances accumulating in listless layers. I wondered if the astronaut felt any symmetry between those plains and the areas she had encountered while aboard U.S. space shuttle Discovery. I also desperately wanted to know if Metcalf-Lindenburger ever read her horoscope (the trench between astronomy and astrology makes sense, but has always been a funny stalemate to me). In the end, I refrained from “what’s your sign?” and kept my questions factual.

A geologist by training, I asked Metcalf-Lindenburger if she had gotten to perform any geological experiments while in space, and how her earth sciences knowledge had been applied to the solar system.

“The experiments I did get to do were mainly on my own body,” she replied. But she got to make plenty of geological observations in macro. From the shuttle window, she remembers the “incredible lushness” of the Amazon basin, and the Sahara’s “bright, bright orange” as it met and contrasted with the Mediterranean’s dollop of blue. Distant places that had fascinated her geologically were suddenly visible with one glance, and yet irreducible to diagrams. The lakes of Tanzania? They appeared far larger than she had previously imagined. Taking long looks whenever she could  (space turns us all into gawkers), Metcalf-Lindenburger kept focused on her official duty to STS-131, the designation given to Discovery as it orbited the Earth: being an educator mission specialist who operates and maintains various technological elements of the shuttle.

space shuttle launch at nightAs a teacher-turned-astronaut, Metcalf-Lindenburger was a “fully operational” member of her mission crew. However, NASA has been sending teachers into space on and off for as long as the space shuttle program has existed, and this level of training was not always standard. Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to launch in 1986, underwent rigorous training as a “payload specialist;” in 2007, the second instance, Barbara Morgan became a full astronaut; in 2010, so did Metcalf-Lindenburger and her peers. By that time, NASA had completely overhauled the project (along with the entire shuttle program) after the disastrous Challenger explosion in 1986, which killed McAuliffe and the six other crewmembers––all over live television broadcast.

The complicated legacy of the Educator Astronaut Program (originally known as Teachers in Space) is a fascinating theme within the three-decade shuttle era, and something that Metcalf-Lindenburger has had difficulty with.

In fact, when approached for this interview, she was even wary of Whitman’s continued fascination with the space theme. Being both a teacher and an astronaut is a rather contentious career combination, she said, and many assume that being an astronaut requires you to “be some amazing superstar.” And while “we do have those superstars in the astronaut core,” she clarified that “not everyone has their Ph.D. and most people have come from different scientific backgrounds.” The swarm of assumptions around NASA and around the word “astronaut” can make messaging hard, and the program has in the past received a mixed reception.

On one level, you have NASA scientists and other high level professionals (with as many doctorates as I have keys on my keychain) looking down on educator astronauts for taking “the easy route” to space. On another level, you have the general public, thrilled with the glamour of their involvement in spaceflight but nonplussed by their status as teachers.

“We have a lot of teachers” Metcalf-Lindenburger noted, so it makes sense that people assume “anyone can be a teacher.” No one assumes anyone can be an astronaut, so when a national scientific organization elects to hire non-professionals (no matter their previous employment) for complex flights, you’d expect there to be some controversy.

Although tired of appearing like she has “a chip on her shoulder,” Metcalf-Lindenburger insists that “flying teachers” is not an outrageous concept. She explained that by “hiring teachers as astronauts,” NASA was not shooting them into space as a PR stunt, but rather demonstrating how crucial they are to science in the United States, and that “those in the classroom are scientists.” Science teachers are ideal candidates for the astronaut job (they know the atmospheric basics, they understand experimental methods and they’re extremely skilled at explaining complex topics) and NASA is just a savvy recruiter, she explained. How better to elevate the status of a public school teacher than to give them the privilege of inclusion in one of the most respected and wondered-at activities in the world? In so many ways, the program sounds like a foolproof (if slightly grand) strategy.

The more fundamental roles in inspiring future generations of scientists are played by path builders—the teachers, counselors and other instructors that demonstrate where and how one must place their feet along the way.

Nonetheless, it was a brilliant idea to bring schoolteachers inside NASA’s most mystifying operations. Why? Because teachers are the ideal liaisons for any national program that wants to reach children with educational and inspirational messages.

In Metcalf-Lindenburger’s words, “we’re good at communicating difficult things in a way that all age groups will hear." But aligning teaching with space exploration sends a number of confusing signals. Can teaching in the United States (while deserving of higher pay, greater respect and true critical acclaim) ever be brought up to the same levels of cultural accord as the astronaut? And might training a handful of teachers as full-fledged space agents be the deed to turn the tide? That was NASA’s goal, and the effect has been astounding—and it’s been measured. However, Metcalf-Lindenburger now knows that “that mission is bigger than what three to four people can really accomplish.”

While there is much more to the Educator Astronaut Program than showcasing, public relations did play a significant role. By bringing teachers inside NASA, the prestigious organization made itself more nationally relatable, perhaps even more benevolent-seeming. PR was also a huge part of the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle, including Discovery, in 2011, and is now something that has plenty of STEM professionals concerned.

When the last shuttle was rolled away, the United States said farewell to a hallmark of national accomplishment. Many probably began writing eulogies in their heads. Today, when you google “NASA space shuttle,” the fourth result on the list reads: “What was the space shuttle?” For a millennial or baby boomer, it feels like these results were pre-arranged for the understanding of younger googlers.

Ironically enough, much of NASA’s cultural cache has been reversed. Once the image of the future, NASA is now a bulwark of our past. Shuttle nostalgia and conjecture about such nostalgia, is rife online; NPR, for example, has reams of webpages dedicated to “the end of the space shuttle era.” Stories include retrospective think pieces and slideshows of shuttle “memorabilia.” Faded photos show people in 1980s’ tailoring (a couple getting married, a father and son sharing binoculars) smiling below the trails of peach-colored launch fumes. Spend a few minutes perusing this virtual museum and you have to ask: so, what now? The age of the space shuttle is over. Will there be a main attraction as majestic as the shuttle to garner the nation’s attention? What are humans going to do in space these days, and where will children find inspiration (as powerful as spaceflight was) to become scientists?

This is the core PR question currently plaguing NASA and its watchers. Born smack-dab in the middle of the shuttle program’s lifespan, I had never thought about the significance of the shuttle’s ending much before speaking to Metcalf-Lindenburger and trying to place her accomplishments in a cultural context. Newly aware of the massive influence the shuttle program (and the moon landings before it) has had on our national psyche, and on our orientation to space and atmospheric science, I too am now concerned by the “inspiration gap” question. With the U.S. Space Program now missing its arguably most iconic feature, the dream of space flight and all the truly epic wonders associated with it are less vivid. As astrophysicist Adam Frank put it, “the loss of that dream” is monumental.

Everyone seems to be asking: without the space shuttle as a major conduit for another generation of space dreams, what will encourage kids into STEM fields? According to Metcalf-Lindenburger, who cited a doubling in the number of astronaut applications since 2010, we probably don’t need to worry much about this “gap” for at least 10 years. We may, however, worry for storytelling’s sake. Now that human spaceflight happens through a number of private companies and the International Space Station is run cooperatively with other countries, space flight is no longer an American cultural touchstone, nor easily translatable for children.

Metcalf-Lindenburger conceded that the loss of “our own national vehicle” is substantial. However, “there’s going to be a lot more possibilities” before we know it. The Challenger, Columbia and Discovery vehicles have been described as this century’s version of the Wright Brothers’ airplanes: spaceflight technology is only going to advance from here.

Optimistic as she is that NASA will continue to ignite powerful dreams, Whitman’s own astronaut has never underestimated “the dream.” Inspired to study science as a teen during a NASA space camp she attended in the ninth grade, Metcalf-Lindenburger still makes speaking engagements on the camp’s behalf. But space camp was equally about “paths” to NASA as it was about the prospect of jetting around the planet in a gravity-free vehicle. For her, space camp succeeded in selling the dream while also revealing the other human realities behind major scientific operations.

Specifically, she was exposed to nodes beyond mission control, the pre-flight shuttle engineers and other clusters of the NASA workforce that are frequently outshone by the aura of the astronaut. The underlying power of space camp was its realism. It was there that Metcalf-Lindenburger recognized “a lot more positions that make spaceflight possible.” Her biggest takeaway?

Space shuttle in orbit with cargo bay doors open“I remember thinking… oh, this is possible for me.” It was as if the curtains had been drawn back on a famed enterprise. “I could make real decisions in my life to become a part of NASA.” She realized reaching these levels of science “wasn’t just an out-there dream,” and left with a navigable pathway in mind.

Today, one might argue that much of Metcalf-Lindenburger’s fierce belief in teaching comes from her knowledge of such pathways. If spaceflight was the shining light, her instructors at space camp and all the other parts of NASA were the bricks that formed the path. While “the dream” is essential, the more fundamental roles in inspiring future generations of scientists are played by path builders—the teachers, counselors, and other instructors that demonstrate where and how one must place their feet along the way. The teacher-astronaut reflected that “there are so many ways to get the message out there,” and noted “social media, broadcasts, the availability of data, the movies…” as new methods of delivering inspiring NASA messages. Without the shuttle, human spaceflight is perhaps less visible, but there’s more to STEM than astronauts can show. So for her, there’s no doubt that NASA and other organizations are still “making it exciting.”

Even when you understand the primacy of instruction and demonstration, the dream of flight remains a kind of legendary lost ingredient to scientific inspiration. And this leaves the question: what comes next? For NASA, spaceflight programs are considerably down in frequency but far from over. Metcalf-Lindenburger explained that there are actually more ways to fly today than ever before, but they’re less accessible. A member of one of the final missions in 2010, she considered staying on after the last shuttle retired in 2011. Piloting other vehicles still drew her interest, but now much of that work requires years of training and long stints in Japan and Russia. She decided instead to leave NASA and Texas and return to the Pacific Northwest (a welcome downsize, as “Houston has essentially the population of all of Oregon”) to raise a family and get back to other scientific pursuits.

After talking with her, it’s clear that the “inspiration gap” NASA faces (if considerable at all) will soon be bridged by new and different missions, technologies and approaches to space. Ever the teacher, Metcalf-Lindenburger is clearly a pragmatist. As Matt Novak wrote in Slate about the nation’s recent obsession with the ‘Sputnik moment,’ plenty will “spend time hand-wringing over a lack of shared ambition, rather than actually working toward game-changing goals.” Metcalf-Lindenburger is nodding respectfully to nostalgia and the power of “the dream” while charging towards new goals to change the game.

Right now, Metcalf-Lindenburger is getting back on the education wagon. She is months away from completing her master’s in applied geology at the University of Washington, and her most recent visit to Whitman in April got her excited to implement a network of teacher-mentors for students interested in entering the field. While she hasn’t taught full-time in a while, she frequently visits schools, camps and other organizations as a speaker and co-taught a community college STEM class with another scientist-alumna last year. Thanks to that and her previous jobs, she is the owner of one wonderfully idiosyncratic LinkedIn profile. When read reverse chronologically, she is: “Teacher. Astronaut. Master’s candidate.” While she knows she “didn’t become a teacher to make life easy,” she never would have expected that joining NASA as an educator mission specialist would make it in some ways harder to earn respect as an educator in America. But, all in all, her time at NASA has given her that much more to teach about.

Sierra Dickey ’15 was an environmental humanities major at Whitman and now works as a copywriter for a digital marketing agency, a poetry editor for an environmental publishing company and a freelance journalist for herself in Brattleboro, Vermont. She writes a weekly missive called Stay Fluent about life outside, internet feminisms and a few things she likes about popular culture.

Published on Jul 6, 2016
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