Q&A: Whitman grad Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger talks about education and spaceflight

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Listen to audio clips of the interview below.

WALLA WALLA -- Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger propelled her career to the highest reaches, all the way to space, by challenging herself in school and letting her curiosity be a guide. Metcalf-Lindenburger graduated from Whitman College in 1997, earning a geology degree and later becoming a science teacher.

After teaching science for about five years, Metcalf-Lindenburger thought she would earn her master's degree, but became an astronaut instead.

Metcalf-Lindenburger was in space in April, and is an educator mission specialist with NASA. She was in town Saturday to deliver a speech about the impact of her Whitman education in shaping her future during the class of 2010 Baccalaureate. She also met with media to discuss her recent trip to space.

Q. Did you always know that you would go to college?

A. Yes. My parents both went to Colorado State University, and since I was really little it was all that they talked about, when my sister and I would go to college. My mom was a math major at a time when it wasn't popular to be a math major as a woman. My dad was a scientist and an industrial arts major. ... So yes, we were going to go to college. It was just a matter of where. I broke it to them later.

Q. Given where you are now in your life, what kind of advice do you have for girls who are maybe discouraged by science?

A. I know we have a hard time with keeping women in sciences. Part of the advice is, when things get hard, you shouldn't give up. ... The reason why I liked math and science is because it was a little bit challenging. My other classes seemed to come more easily to me, and I had to spend more time doing my math and science work. ... It's difficult, but you have to ignore the stereotypes that our society puts out there for women. It doesn't challenge you at all. ... You have to find role models that are productive. You can start hopefully with your own mother, or go to colleges and campuses and find women who are there as mentors and ask them what they're doing and studying and ask to follow them. I know there are so many people even here at Whitman that would be glad to do that, or wherever you're at school.

Q. When did space travel, space flight, become a real option for you? When did you know that was something you were going to focus on?

A. I didn't really think it was going to be an option until I went back for further schooling. Right before I filled out the application for NASA ... I was looking for master's programs in planetary and atmospheric sciences. ... After five years of teaching I knew that I wanted to go back and get a master's in one of these areas. Then I had a student ask me, 'how do you go to the bathroom in space'? And that kind of changed plans.

I went to the (NASA) website to find the answer to the bathroom question, and it had the application for teachers being hired as astronauts. ... After I filled that out I still figured that getting my master's was probably what was going to happen. There were going to be lots of people who applied and I was not going to be hired, but at least I had put my application in the ring. That changed in April of 2004. I was called while I was at school and told that I had the job. That was pretty awesome.

Q. What did you do on your recent trip?

A. I was the flight engineer, which meant that I was on the flight deck for ascent and entry, and I backed up the commander and pilot on all of the checklists. So I had the master checklist with me. ... I flew the robotic arm on the space shuttle side. ... Inside I was the communicator to the two guys that were out space walking ... so I led those three space walks from inside. Then, I was a mover. I helped move over six tons of goods. ... It's pretty awesome to move stuff in space. It's a lot easier than Earth.

Q. Are you aware that you are no longer on Earth?

A. Absolutely. Things kind of hover nearby, which is really handy at times. It can also be really frustrating because if you drop ... if you put anything out there, then you're not going to find it right away, especially if it has a rate. I remember one time I took out my head lamp and the battery pack opened up and all the batteries were flying everywhere. And they were the little triple-As, and I couldn't find one of them, and it was dark. ... It's fun to eat food. There's lots of food play in orbit. ... Moving equipment is really easy. So when we're moving these tons of goods, you can carry it by the tips of your fingers, or sometimes you just put them between your legs. ... The guys that were out doing the space walk, they were replacing a 2,000 pound ammonia tank. So one of them could hold 2,000 pounds at a time, but again, it's just a matter of holding it very steady and not moving it really fast.

Q. Now that you've been back for some time, what have you reflected on?

A. I think the best thing about the space flight was seeing Earth. I flew over this area many times, and thankfully it wasn't cloudy, and I could pick out all the volcanos of the Cascade range, and I could see where the Columbia and Snake meet, and then I could trace back to where Walla Walla would be. And that's just really cool. That's home. ... Seeing the Earth, seeing places on the Earth I'd never seen before. The Sahara, the Amazon. ... One afternoon on the day that we extended our flight because of weather, we couldn't come back home, so we watched all these icebergs. It was so amazing. I'd never seen floating icebergs in an ocean, and they looked so tiny, but you know they have to be very large for us to be able to see them, and they're just really beautiful.

Q. Is there night and day in space?

A. Yes, but its not defined by the way we define time. Every 90 minutes you're orbiting the Earth, and so you'll get 16 sunrises and sunsets throughout the day. So to set time, we have taken on Greenwich Mean Time as our universal time. That's a compromise because United States and Russia hold the two primary vehicles of the International Space Station so we set that as our time. So that keeps it constant, you define your day by that. You sleep for about eight hours and the rest of the time is mostly work, but you also have some breakfast, lunch and dinner, and exercise time.

Every hour of the day is scheduled, and it's all done by mission control. It's like looking at your calendar but for every hour of the day.

Q. Is there some importance to why you need to exercise?

A. Absolutely. I was surprised how quickly your calf muscles atrophy. ... The same with your quads, and your gluteus maximus, both of those are gone pretty quickly too. A lot of it is just fluid loss, and blood volume. ... For the station they have a lot more weight-lifting and things to mitigate some of that loss. ... Exercise is really important. I think the ISS (International Space Station) folks that are up there for six months do it like two to three hours a day, just to maintain.

Q. What are your future plans?

A. I hope to someday go live on station for six months. But that means I have to get a lot better at Russian. So I'm going to be taking a lot more Russian, and learning more about the International Space Station systems.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.
INTERVIEW AUDIO CLIPS

When did you decide to become an astronaut?

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What were your duties on the recent space flight?

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Where you physically aware you were no longer on Earth?

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Is there night and day in space?

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Why is exercise so important during space travel?

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What have you reflected on since you've returned from your mission?

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What are your plans for the future?

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