Former Astronaut, Alumna Returns to Whitman College


Photo by Anna Dawson

Marra Clay, Publisher

During her time at Whitman College, Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger (‘97) had no idea that she would pursue a career in education, let alone be a part of the first generation of NASA educator astronauts. As she ran for the cross country team and took geology classes, she could not anticipate that a decade later she would fly in the Discovery space shuttle STS-131 mission after being selected from a pool of NASA’s thousands of applicants.

On Monday, April 4, Metcalf-Lindenburger returned to Whitman College to speak about Science, Technology, Engineer and Math (STEM) education, both during an afternoon panel in Brattain Auditorium and during a lecture later that night in Reid Campus Center. Her public talk was about her time as an astronaut entitled “Training, Living, and Exploring Together in Space.”

During her college search, Metcalf-Lindenburger was initially drawn to Whitman College because the flyers were printed on recycled paper, a new phenomenon in the nineties.

I liked that because I’ve always cared and been compassionate about the earth, so I thought that it was really nice that a school valued the environment,” said Metcalf-Lindenburger.

Photo by Anna Dawson
Photo by Anna Dawson

While at Whitman, Metcalf-Lindenburger studied geology, was an Academic All-American Athlete on the cross country and track and field teams, and volunteered as a mentor and ESL tutor at Berney Elementary School. Her first year she lived in Jewett Hall, and later became a Senior Resident in Prentiss Hall and a Resident Assistant in Douglas Hall. Now-retired Phillips Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Bob Carson, her academic advisor, reflects very positively on her time on campus.

[Metcalf-Lindenburger is] somebody who has a very nice personality and who is thoughtful of others and has very high physical and mental qualities. If anybody could be an astronaut, Dottie could just [given] her combination of attributes,” said Carson.

After graduating from Whitman with honors in Geology, Metcalf-Lindenburger had no clear future. Her plans to be in the Peace Corps fell through when her program was canceled, and she decided to get her teaching certification from Central Washington University.

“I was a T.A. for Kevin Pogue’s [Introduction to Geology] lab and I enjoyed that a lot, but I wasn’t going to be a teacher … I didn’t think [at the time],” said Metcalf-Lindenburger, whose parents were both teachers. “I knew that we needed teachers in the United States. I don’t sit around a lot, I knew I could have applied to graduate school, but I ended up doing my teaching certification and becoming a teacher.”

After receiving her teaching certification, Metcalf-Lindenburger began teaching high school science. Her course changed when, while looking up an answer to a student’s astronomy question, she stumbled upon NASA’s application for educator astronauts. Metcalf-Lindenburger had always dreamed of being an astronaut but had planned on first getting her masters in geology. However, educator astronauts receive the same amount of training as typical astronauts but tend to incite excitement about space and science in students and the public. Carson was not surprised that she was picked for the position.

I knew she was going to be a great teacher and that she is a great geologist, runner and leader, so it wasn’t a surprise that NASA picked her,” commented Carson.  

After her first mission in 2010, Metcalf-Lindenburger proceeded to command NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) underwater. During NEEMO, Metcalf-Lindenburger and her team tried to simulate conditions on an asteroid at the underwater laboratory near Key Largo, Florida.

“For two weeks I lived underwater with three NASA sponsored research folks and two technicians … Every day we went diving to try to show what it might be like to work on an underwater asteroid … It was kind of like getting to use geology, which I really liked.”

Metcalf-Lindenburger retired from NASA in 2014 and will be completing her masters of geology this June. Whitman students who attended her lecture were very excited to meet her.

“I’ve stared at the picture that she signed in the geo department and thought that it was so cool, so when I saw an email that she was giving a talk I had to go,” said sophomore Tara Stahlecker.

First-year Jonah Rodewald also attended her talk. “Everyone wants to be an astronaut, and so it was fantastic to meet someone who has actually done it.”

What advice does Metcalf-Lindenburger give to Whitman students who are interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields?

“Stay involved and stay in touch with professors when you leave … It’s not easy to leave Whitman. It’s a great, supportive community, and you don’t want to leave. When you go out into the real world it is hard … it’s not just quite the same. It’s going to be really awesome and it’s going to shape who you are but it is challenging. You can find your way but you need to keep contacting friends and support groups,” she said.

Photo by Anna Dawson
Photo by Anna Dawson