Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, former astronaut and current graduate student at the University of Washington.
NASA
Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, former astronaut and current graduate student at the University of Washington.

Dream big

A question from one of her students at Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash., changed the trajectory of Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger’s life:

“Mrs. ML, how do astronauts use the restroom in space?”

The Earth sciences and astronomy teacher looked for the answer online, but got more than she bargained for: NASA wanted to send math and science teachers to space.

As a child, she had created an astronaut out of a ketchup bottle and attended space camp. As an undergrad who studied geology—the dirt beneath our feet—the opportunity begged what might lie ahead for her in the big sky.

“How could I tell my students to follow their dreams if I wasn’t willing to?” she said.

All systems go

The STS 131 crew, including Metcalf-Lindenburger.
NASA
The STS 131 crew, including Metcalf-Lindenburger.

In April 2004, Metcalf-Lindenburger got the call—she was part of NASA’s newest astronaut class.

Arriving in Florida with her husband and their young daughter, she got to work immediately with wilderness survival training, underwater simulations, team-building exercises, and T-38 flight school. She also memorized the location and functionality of 1,500 switches used to operate a shuttle and its systems.

On a calm, dark morning in April 2010, the sleep-shifted STS-131 crew stood 195 feet above ground on the Space Shuttle Discovery’s launch pad.

“Three miles away my family, friends, and colleagues were waiting to watch. I felt this peace and knew it was going to be amazing,” Metcalf-Lindenburger said.

The 8.5-minute journey into space began like a shifting, jerky rollercoaster ride. When the solid rocket boosters fell into the ocean, the orange, external tank made for a smoother trek. Moving at a top speed of around 17,000 miles per hour, the g-force weighed on the crew and breathing was labored. Then, Metcalf-Lindenburger says, “The main engine cuts off and you’re in space. You float up into your seatbelt and look down at Europe.”

In addition to operating the robotic arm, one of the most demanding skills required of a mission specialist, Metcalf-Lindenburger directed the team’s space walks, relayed information to and from the ground, and addressed maintenance issues. When the opportunity arose though, she allowed herself to relish in the grandness of her situation.

Metcalf-Lindenburger and her team were treated to this view during one of their space walks.
Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger
Metcalf-Lindenburger and her team were treated to this view during one of their space walks.

“During one walk, we were waiting to hear from Houston. I said, “Well, wait, where are we?” The sun was coming up over Earth. We had to honor that moment,” Metcalf-Lindenburger said.

In 15 days, the team had successfully unloaded cargo from their primary payload, the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module.

Six years of training, an eight-minute slingshot ride into space, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity seized. Metcalf-Lindenburger thought about her family and friends as she passed over a cloudless Pacific Northwest en route to Kennedy Space Center.

Landing at the UW

“When you see, literally see, how thin the atmosphere is, it drives home the fragility of our planet,” she said.

Metcalf-Lindenburger learned more about the way the planet works by leaving it. She saw a volcanic eruption, calving icebergs, and drought-stricken regions. She witnessed the interconnectedness of the Earth’s systems and was inspired to protect the resources keeping those systems functional.

At the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, Metcalf-Lindenburger is part of the interdisciplinary Masters in Earth and Space Sciences in Applied Geosciences program. She plans to work in an environmental protection or restoration capacity post-graduation. Eventually, she may run for public office.

“This is where I wanted to be. I submitted an application to one program,” she said. “The Department of Earth and Space Sciences is one of the top five in the nation, but I liked that I’d be able to incorporate classes from other departments too—the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, the College of Built Environments.”

Metcalf-Lindenburger didn’t stop dreaming after the Space Shuttle Discovery returned to Earth. She just shifted her focus to other dreams: getting back to the Northwest and immersing herself into the science of geology at the UW. As an astronaut, UW husky, environmentalist, and could-be politician, she goes after opportunities that embody the goals she sets for herself. Despite the risk of failure, she encourages us all to do the same.

Written by: Kelly Knickerbocker, kknick@uw.edu