Whitman alumna, NASA astronaut preps for 2010 space flight to International Space Station

Liz Forsyth

Credit: Loos-Diallo
Credit: Loos-Diallo

In March, alumna Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger ’97 will fly to the International Space Station as a part of crew STS-131 on a NASA mission to deliver and replace equipment. A geology major at Whitman, she completed NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Training in February 2006. This, her first flight, will be the next-to-last flight for the space shuttle Discovery, as NASA phases out the space shuttle program. With lift-off a few months away, NASA granted The Pioneer a 15-minute interview with Metcalf-Lindenburger.

How has training been going? What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do?

One of the coolest things was when I went to Brooks Air Force Base (now Brooks City-Base) and we got to finally do centrifuge. It was fun because everyone always asks you if you get to do a centrifuge. It’s not scary or anything; it doesn’t make you sick. It’s actually kind of fun, but a little less exciting than some roller coasters. And I like flying. Today I’m going to fly in a B-38 to Florida and do a shuttle training aircraft [a NASA training vehicle that simulates the space shuttle’s handling qualities to train astronauts for shuttle landings].

So as an astronaut, how do you feel about the International Space Station? I know there’s talk about replacing it.  What are your thoughts on that?

I hope that after we’ve spent . . . I can’t remember the exact number, it’s several millions of dollars, on making it be up and in space . . .   we [will] keep it going until 2020.

There’s a lot more science that can still be done; there’s a lot of science that can be started and we are just finally getting to six crewmembers up there, so I hope that we do extend out to 2020 and really show that it is a national lab, and you know all the others are on the Earth, so really it’s only begun in its abilities to improve our science. So I hope that we can see it through.

In addition, I really want us to go back to the moon and on to other objects in our solar system.   So I’m also hoping that we are building the next launch vehicle, which will hopefully be Ares, and we just saw that launch [referring to the successful test launch of NASA’s Ares I-X booster, an unmanned prototype of the Ares I rocket that NASA plans to use for flights afterthe space shuttles are retired]. That was a cool thing to do to be down in Florida and to watch it launch. So, I hope that we are building our new vehicle that will replace the shuttle.

The Pioneer: Tell me about your mission.

Metcalf-Lindenburger: Sure! We’re bringing up what we call a multi-purpose logistics module, which is basically like a U-Haul full of stuff. Some of the stuff we’re bringing up, one is the last crew quarters to support six people living at the station. Right now they already have five crew quarters up there so everyone will have their own private room. And then we’re bringing a couple of science racks. One’s a minus 80 degree freezer that actually helps with a lot of biology samples and we’re bringing up a rack called WARF, which is a window to observations and it’s a very good optical quality for taking pictures. And then, what else are we bringing . . .  MERs, an experiment for resistance for muscles and it’s got all these different resistance exercises that our staff will do when they’re at station.

And then we have three spacewalks. They’re mostly centered around swapping out an ammonia tank that is needed to cool the station, for the thermal equipment on the station that runs all of our outdoor equipment. For those three spacewalks I’ll be inside serving as the intra-vehicular spacewalk person doing all the steps and walking the guys through the timeline as they do these six-and-a-half-hour extra-vehicular activities. There are some other tasks they’ll be doing while they’re up there too, but the majority is swapping out those ammonia tanks. And I’m also doing some robotics on the mission with the shuttle arm and then the space station robotics arm. The space station’s robotic arm will be flown by three of my crewmates. And then we’ll all come home!

As a former Whitman student, did you learn anything in college that helped you do this type of project? Did you ever see yourself doing something like this when you were here?

Well I’ve always loved NASA. When I was at Whitman, I thought one day I’d come work at NASA. I didn’t know in what capacity, but I wanted to come work at NASA just because I was always interested in what it was doing and I liked space. I’ve been in love with space since I was really young, probably second or third grade.   But, you know, I think with any education it’s what you make of it, and Whitman was a really good place for me. I was an RA, I was able to get really involved at Whitman and I think that as an astronaut we have to be multi-taskers. We don’t get to specialize in one thing; we have to be good at many things and so it’s a lot like a liberal arts education.

One last question. If you could name a Mars Rover, what would you name it?

If I could name a Mars Rover, what would I name it . . . umm . . . let’s see. Maybe I’d name it Cinnabar, even though we’re not looking to find a whole lot of that there. That was Bob Carson’s dog’s name, and the dog is red, and cinnabar is a red mineral, so I think that would be kind of cool.