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Central Washington University

When This Big of a Dream Comes True

"When this big of a dream comes true, it’s unreal," said Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Central's first Wildcat in space.

 

Let's face it—the odds for the average American going to outer space are, well, astronomical. Even at NASA, of the select few who are chosen for the astronaut training program, even fewer will actually have a shot at landing a mission.

 

So what kind of chance did a high school science teacher from Vancouver have? Actually, a pretty good one, even if it did come about through fairly unorthodox means.

 

"One of my students asked me how astronauts go to the bathroom in space," explained Dorothy "Dottie" Metcalf-Lindenburger, former Earth science and astronomy teacher at Hudson's Bay High School. "As I was Googling the answer, I came across an application for NASA's educator astronaut program."

 

That was in 2003; in 2004, she was accepted into the program.

 

“I found out that I was selected for the program in third period at the high school,” she remembers, “and I just started shouting! I had been waiting for six months to hear from Space Camp. I changed lesson plans for my students and we started learning more about the science of space.”

 

The Metcalf-Lindenburger family moved to Houston and the hard work began. Dottie spent six long years training for her mission, which launched this year. An avid runner and marathoner, Dottie was in good physical shape, but she worked extensively with an athletic trainer and physical therapist to make sure her back and core muscles were strong enough to withstand the kick of the rocket during lift-off.

 

In addition to physical workouts, Metcalf-Lindenburger put in serious classroom time to learn shuttle and space station operations. (The space shuttle alone has 1,500 switches—and a mission specialist has to learn about every one.) Dottie’s astronaut candidate training also included scientific and technical briefings, T-38 flight training, and water and wilderness survival training.

 

On April 5, the STS-131 Discovery, a resupply mission for the International Space Station, was launched. The crew dropped off more than 27,000 pounds of hardware, supplies, and equipment, including a one-ton ammonia tank assembly that required three spacewalks to hook it up. Metcalf-Lindenburger was in charge of the three six-and-a-half-hour spacewalks, and was responsible for the safety of crew members Clay Anderson and Rick Mastracchio, who performed the work in 350-pound suits. Dottie also operated the space shuttle’s robotic arm, using it to inspect the shuttle for any damage.

 

“Operating the arm took some practice,” she said.

 

But in space, even tiring, tedious tasks are a joy to perform.

“It was so beautiful,” she said, a little wistfully. “Little mundane tasks like organizing the six tons of food for the space station were fun. I saw the aurora borealis multiple times, something I always looked for but never saw in Colorado.”

A geology major, Dottie was able to pick out familiar landmarks from space.

 

“We came across the Pacific Northwest a lot,” she continued. “You can really pick out the volcanoes. I could see Mount St. Helens, the Columbia River, and where the Snake River meets the Columbia. It was so beautiful. We made a pass [across the region] daily and I made a point to look.”

 

At 200 miles above the earth, she became poignantly aware of the fragility of the oceans, and the “delicate land we fight over, but belongs to none of us.”

 

The STS-131 mission was accomplished in fifteen days, two hours, forty-seven minutes, ten seconds, and traveled 6,232,235 statute miles in 238 orbits.

 

For Dottie, the 362 hours of space flight was all too short. “I’d like to spend six months on the International Space Station,” she said.

 

 

Lifelong Teacher and Learner

 

The Fort Collins, Colorado native became interested in science in high school. She chose to attend Whitman College in Walla Walla, where she was a cross-country standout. She was the 1995-1996 NAIA Academic All-American in Cross Country and Track, and the 1996 NAIA Conference Champion in the 10K.

 

She also garnered honors in her major, receiving the 1996 GSA Field Camp Award, and Leed’s Geology Award and Order of the Waiilaptu. She conducted undergraduate research with the KECK Consortium for two summers. In 1995, she was in Wyoming mapping the last glaciations of Russell Creek. In 1996, she was mapping and determining the petrology of the rocks in the Wet Mountain region of Colorado.  Both research positions led to publications.

 

After graduating cum laude from Whitman with a degree in geology (with honors), she was set to go to Kazakhstan on a Peace Corps mission, when the trip was cancelled at the last minute because of political unrest in the region. That’s when she decided she could “make a difference on US soil.”

 

Inspired by her parents, both of whom are teachers, she came to Central Washington University to get her teaching certificate in 1997.

 

“Three professors were pivotal to me,” she said. “Dr. Michael Braunstein [physics], Dr. James Huckabay [geography], and Nick Zentner [scientific instructional tech supervisor, geological sciences]. I volunteered to be a teaching assistant in their classes. I learned a lot about teaching just by watching my professors. I spent a lot of class time just observing how they taught.

 

“I took notes on how they set up labs and on the materials they used, so I could replicate them in my middle or high school classes. I visited them during office hours and asked for additional readings. And I took extra courses in history and Earth sciences.

 

“In my classes at Central, I also learned to look at the night sky more intensively and accurately. I also learned to track climate changes and learned about weather phenomenon.”

 

Among her many honors, she was selected as the 1999 Outstanding Teacher Preparation Candidate at Central.

 

She spent the next five years teaching in Vancouver, where she also coached cross-country. On one occasion, a runner on an opposing team arrived at a meet without her shoes. Metcalf-Lindenburger quietly lent her own running shoes to the girl, whose team later won the meet.

 

In 2004, she was named the VIP of the Vancouver School District.

 

Although she doesn’t plan to return to a high school classroom, Metcalf-Lindenburger remains a teacher at heart. She and her husband Jason (also a teacher) have been known to bring out a telescope in parks and campgrounds, and encourage people they encounter to have a peek. They showed people things like the planets and the moon. “So many adults have never even looked through a telescope,” she said.

 

Additionally, her role as educator astronaut keeps her busy with public appearances to talk about the space missions and to explain NASA’s role in space exploration.

 

“It’s a good way to connect with people,” she said, “and to let them know what their tax dollars are doing.”

 

In the future (maybe after a space station stint), Dottie plans to continue her education to become a university professor. 

 

“I really enjoyed high school and that energy,” she commented. “But now I see myself teaching college students.”

 

Metcalf-Lindenburger got a chance to test those academic waters when she spoke at Central’s 119th commencement in Ellensburg on June 12. Addressing the thousand or so graduates, she exhorted them “to use your recent accomplishments to navigate and explore the challenging paths that lie in front of you.”

 

Later in June, she had a homecoming at Hudson’s Bay High School, where she presented the school with the black and gold Hudson’s Bay pennant she took with her on the mission. During the assembly, she spoke about her mission and the triumphs and trials of life in outer space. She also underscored a lesson she had been teaching from her first day in the classroom: “Dream big—and back it up with hard work.”

 

 

Pulled from: Central Connections Fall 2010