This is the STS-131 interview with Mission Specialist Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger. Tell us about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there.
Preflight Interview: Dorothy M. Metcalf-Lindenburger, Mission Specialist
I grew up along the front range of Colorado. First, I was born in Colorado Springs and then moved to Loveland and spent elementary school growing up in Loveland and then moved to Fort Collins for junior high and high school, and I think just growing up along the front range provides you with a lot of opportunities. First of all, you take topography for granted until you move to a place like Houston and you don’t have the mountains. But it’s like every day is pretty sunny in Colorado, so you’re used to looking at the sky, and at night the sky is gorgeous. I knew several constellations growing up just because it’s easy to pick them out, and fossils were really abundant in my backyard in Loveland. My sister and I, we just became accustomed to digging in the backyard and finding these fossils. I didn’t know until later, when I became a geologist, just how lucky I was because when you’re in geology, it’s pretty hard to actually find fossils often, and you may spend a lot of time digging before you get one. So, some of the things I took for granted, later in life, I would realize, “Wow, this is a pretty special place that I grew up” and it’s beautiful.
Were any of the fossils of any significance other than…
Oh, no, I don’t think you could sell them or anything, but it’s an important part of recognizing that rock formation and also knowing that it was kind of a fine silt that these were laid down in and just knowing that environment. It’s like a historic environment there; at one time there was a lake covering this area before it became mountains. So, it’s kind of cool.
So it sounds like you had plenty of opportunity for exploration…
…just growing up there.
Just right in my backyard.
Wow, okay. So tell me, what other interests did you have growing up?
Well, I do a lot of things with my family. I have a little sister and she’s just three years younger, and I had two cousins that were older than me, and we got together a lot with our family and played. We sang songs, so singing and the piano were a big part of growing up, and then later I got more involved with art, and I love to read. We didn’t watch a lot of TV and we only had black and white until I was twelve, so I didn’t watch a lot of TV. I read a whole lot and it wouldn’t be until high school that I actually started running, but running then became a bigger part of my life. But a lot of things centered around what my family did.
How did you get into running? How did that all start?
It’s actually pretty funny because it was something that my sister started and in her elementary school they were doing like a couple miles a week as part of their P.E., and I was in junior high and I was like, “Well, my sister can do it. I can do this.” My dad was getting up with my sister in the morning to do a quarter to a mile run, so I just started joining them, and then I really enjoyed it. She stopped because her P.E. credit stuff was done but I just continued running. It wouldn’t be until the next year that I started doing it as a high school sport, but I just loved it.
Tell me about the role education has played in your life and even as a child.
Yes, so my parents are teachers, so education has been really important since I was born. My parents taught, my dad only taught for five years and then my mom taught for two years, but both of them were trained. That was their profession. My dad taught science and my mom taught math, so big surprise that I love math and science. The teachers were always right. So, there was not going to be a way that, if I came home from school and said, “My teacher did this,” my parents would be like, “And what did you do, Dottie?” So, quickly I learned that education is really important. Even before I went to school that was true. We would go from Fort Collins down to Denver to the museum, to the zoo and to the planetarium. We’d spend lots of time at those places, and I really enjoyed doing that with them. I learned to ask the questions ‘why’ and ‘how come’ and just became really curious about my environment, thanks to them. Later my sister and I would go on to be teachers. My cousin’s a teacher. My aunt was a teacher, and my grandmothers were teachers so education has been important since I was born.
Walk us through the educational steps that you took yourself. Let’s start after high school graduation.
So, after I graduated from high school I went to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. It’s a small liberal arts school in the middle of pretty much nowhere, in like a wheat field, and that was a really great place for me to learn, away from distractions. I went there with the intention of actually studying math like my mom, but I took a geology course my freshman year, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and decided that’s what I was going to major in. So, I majored in geology, and spent a lot of time out in the field, did research outside of Yellowstone, and then did my senior thesis outside of Canyon City in Colorado in the Wet Mountains. Both of those were real different research projects. One was mapping the last glaciation in Yellowstone and the other was mapping 2.5 billion year old rocks. Pretty different, but those were some really great opportunities that I could be afforded at a small school like that. Then, when I graduated, I knew that I wanted to teach, or do something to give back to society. At first, I was accepted to the Peace Corps, but I was going to teach English in Kazakhstan. That was right when there were just some upheavals in that part of the world, and they didn’t let me do Peace Corps there, so I decided, “Well, I can’t just wait around. I’m going to go teach in the U.S.” So, I went back and got my teaching certification at Central Washington University. I did that in science, actually in science and history. My minor in college was history, so I also was able to teach that although I’ve never taught it. Then I went off and taught high school at Vancouver School District at Hudson’s Bay High School.
It’s pretty different.
…that’s a lot of doing. And at some point subsequent to that you decided to go ahead and become an astronaut. Do you recall when it was that you first started thinking about that?
Well, I first started thinking about space when I was younger. The Voyager missions had gone off, and there was a lot of data coming back into museums. I spent a lot of time at the planetarium in Denver, and I started asking all these questions about space. I was really interested in space, and the first time that I thought I could even be an astronaut was when I was in about eighth grade. I did a writing contest, at that time through Martin-Marietta, and I took second place. I got a NASA tee shirt, and first place was a trip to Space Camp. My parents knew that I really wanted to go so they sent me that year, the following year, which was ninth grade, to Space Camp. It was there that I realized if I keep working hard in math and science, it’s a possibility that I could work at NASA. I kind of saw behind the scenes of what different people would do during a mission. Not just what astronauts do, but what the ground does as well, and I thought, “I really would like to work at NASA”. So, that’s why I wanted to go and study math and science in college. Then how does that all turn around, and I became an astronaut or at least even thought about applying? Well, when I was teaching astronomy at high school, one of my students said, “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” It’s kind of a common question we get when we’re doing PRs, and I said, “Well, I don’t know exactly what the toilet looks like, but I’ll look it up.” I looked it up that night, and at the same time they had posted that educators could become astronauts. So, I had the answer to my student’s question, but I also got an answer to a dream that I had for a long time, and so I applied for the astronaut position.
And how long of a process was that for you from applying to selection?
I started applying in April of 2003 and kind of forgot about it. I knew I had sent my application in and done all the big process. You have to have several letters of recommendation and you write some essays, but that summer I wasn’t really expecting to get a letter from NASA. I figured my application just fell into the round file. That summer when we came back from hiking in Arizona there was a letter from NASA, and it said that they wanted me to proceed on. So, I followed on with that, and then in November I came down for the interview process for a week, and I thought, “That’s the best thing ever. That’s the closest I’m going to get to being an astronaut.” There was a lot more waiting, and then in April of 2004 we were called to be astronauts.
Your selection happened the year after the Columbia accident. That was basically a time of uncertainty. The shuttle was grounded.
What was it that gave you the confidence that coming to NASA was a good move for you at that time?
Well, I was looking at a career change or development at that time, and like I said, I had always wanted to work at NASA. I understood that by coming I may not fly, and I understood the reasons why, but I figured I’d be working with an agency that I greatly respected and has done numerous things. I figured that it would be a really interesting place to work, and if flying in space didn’t work out, maybe I could help in a different vicinity. So, I still wanted to come down to NASA, and be a part of it.
As an educator, there’s a presumption that you would probably agree with the saying that education can take you anywhere.
You were on the verge of going to space. How do you feel about being an example of that saying, basically?
Well, I do absolutely agree with that statement that education can take you anywhere. I hope I’m a really good example of how you have to continuously keep yourself educated. In the position that I’m in, I obviously didn’t know all of the things that would be involved in our mission, so I’ve learned those things. I continue to enjoy learning, especially from my crewmates and from the teachers that we have here. From being a little kid growing up in Colorado to going to fly in space, it’s been quite a journey, and life is a journey, but education takes you along the way and it can take you down many roads.
Tell us about, if you remember, where you were and what you were doing when you were selected to fly on STS-131, your first spaceflight.
Yes, so I was at my desk and I got a call that I needed to go down to the front office to see Steve who was the head of our office at that time. So, I went down there and I didn’t really know what to expect, but he pulled me into his office and said, “Congratulations! I think you would be a good member of STS-131” and he outlined who was going to be on the crew and I was like, “Wow! That’s going to be a great crew. I’m really excited to be on that team,” but we kind of had to keep it quiet for a little while. There was another mission that was going to be going on, and there were other things happening. For a while I didn’t share it with people. I kind of didn’t believe it was real at first, and I think I finally called my parents and I was like, “It’s okay if I tell you but you can’t call anyone, but I think I’m going to fly in space,” and they were really excited, too.
Sounds like a calm excitement.
Yes, it was a calm excitement. In a couple of months I think it’ll be more obvious that I will be flying in space.
What are you most looking forward to on this mission, if you can even pick one thing or a couple of things?
Professionally, I’m looking forward to just executing everything that we’ve learned and trying to do this the very best that I can. Then, for me personally I’m looking forward to the first moment that I can somersault down in the mid-deck and really experience space. I also really want to look outside the windows, and just see the heavens more close up.
It certainly can be a once in a lifetime experience you got to enjoy. This mission will commemorate a milestone for JAXA. It’ll mark the first time that two Japanese astronauts, Soichi Noguchi and your classmate, Naoko Yamazaki, will be in space together. What’s it like for you to be a witness to this moment for that space agency and for space exploration as a whole?
Well, I’m excited to work with two really outstanding people. I mean, Soichi is a very accomplished astronaut already, and Naoko is just such a great role model, a great person to work with. So, I’m very excited for them to be a part of this. I think it just shows the importance of working with internationals and how you can accomplish great things together. We’ve been doing that for quite a time now with the International Space Station, but it will be an honor to be there at this historic moment.
Tell us a little bit about what it’s been like working with this crew in training for this mission. You’ve got two of your classmates on the crew with you.
It’s a great crew, lots of talent. Everyone is really patient and willing to help you when you have questions, to share experiences that they’ve had in space, to give you insight into ways that can make it easier, so that you’re not reinventing the wheel. It’s been a lot of fun because we can be kind of goofy, too, at times. It’s fun to be with your classmates, to know that we worked together before, in our training, and now to actually get to fly together, it’s pretty exciting.
There are thousands of people that work behind the scenes to ensure the success of every mission and the safety of the crew. Tell us how you would characterize their contributions to each and every mission.
I think it’s obvious that it’s really important that we need all of these people because the vehicle wouldn’t get off the ground without all their work and excellence. I also think it’s really amazing to think about how all these parts come across the United States, and are assembled together in Florida for the day that we lift off. Everything has to be timed right, and there’s so much testing. It’s just amazing that we do that, and I thank them for all of their hard work, and for being diligent and for making this happen. We get to do the easy job which is fly and be the visible people, but they’re the ones that really did a lot of the work.
Give us a summary, if you would, of what the key objectives are for this mission.
Well, we are an MPLM flight so getting that there with all of our cargo that we need to get to the space station and to unload there is our biggest objective. We also have an ammonia tank that we need to replace, such as an RGA, and then some other payloads that need to take place while we’re up there.
As a Mission Specialist on this flight, give us an idea of what some of your key responsibilities are.
I will be on the flight deck for ascent and entry, so I’ll be helping with making sure we hit all of the, what we call Flight Data File, or our checklist objectives and making sure those all occur. I’ll be flying the robotic arm from the shuttle side, helping with a lot of transfer, and I’ll also be the IV crew member for all three EVAs and like I said, be a flight engineer on the way home on entry.
The MPLM, the Multi Purpose Logistics Module, has flown several times before but, if you would, maybe for even some of your former students who may not know what it is, give us your best description of what it is and how big it is?
It looks like it’s about the size of one of the nodes that’s on the space station now, and it’s full of supplies. I sometimes compare it to a moving van, a small moving van that has to be attached to the space station. We’re bringing lots of racks, and a rack is something about as tall as a human and maybe this wide. We have a crew quarter. We have science racks, and then we just have a lot of supplies that need to come over that will help to conduct science later or help with experiments, but they just need to be moved over to station. So, we are like a big moving van.
Each mission has its own complexities. How would you characterize what’s going to be some of the biggest challenges of this mission?
One of the big challenges of this mission is that since the station has grown, and we’ve added all these modules, it makes it somewhat more difficult for things like the robotic arm to reach distances. The robotic arm can move itself across the station, but we have different clearances now because of these new modules. So, all of our robotics are going to be very technical. Taking out the MPLM and berthing it to station, all of those things have to happen at the right time, right sequencing. That will be very technical as well as the three spacewalks. We have several things that have to be executed at certain times. We have ammonia which you don’t want to bring back into the station because it’s toxic, and we just have safety guides in space and work that we’ve conducted to make sure all these things happen on time and at the right time.
The station crew members will also obviously be involved with what happens during the docked portion of the mission. How critical is their involvement to getting the mission accomplished successfully?
We all have to work together as a team to make any mission work successfully. We haven’t had a lot of time to train with the folks from station, but they will be involved. I know that there will be some involvement from the EVA perspective. They’ll know the systems, so they’ll be helping and assisting Jim when he’s getting ready to take Rick and Clay, and put them in the airlock. Also, I think Soichi will be helping with some robotics, and I know that T.J. is probably going to help with our common berthing mechanism, the CBM ops, there, too. These are all things we need for the mission to go on, and they’re going to be involved in that as well as just helping with the transfer. We’re bringing up a lot of supplies and who knows the station best? Well, the people that live on the station. They’re going to be helping those of us from the shuttle side get everything to where it needs to be, on time.
The day after you make it to orbit the crew is scheduled to do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. Tell us about that process and what your involvement will be.
We’ll be taking the OBSS out of the payload bay, and I’ll be involved in helping with that unberth, and then we use the sensor package to look at all of our thermal protection system. It’s a really long day of inspection. Several hours are spent looking across the whole vehicle. I start out with the first half of the day where we’ll do the starboard skin of the vehicle and then the nose cap. Then I’ll be taking a break, and we’ll have Naoko join us on the flight deck, and she’ll be doing the port wing. We rotate positions to keep our eyes fresh, and we practice the methodology, and the way we want the flow to go for this day because it is, like I said, a long day, and it’s really important that the ground gets all of these pictures. So, we don’t want to move the arm into position, and forget to record because the recording is the most important part. We’re just practicing over and over the method of the day and looking to make sure that the vehicle didn’t take any large damage hits so that we can clear the vehicle to return to Earth.
Then on the following day at some point the crew will have the space station in their sights. You’ll start the process of closing the gap. Tell us what you’ll be doing for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.
I’ll come in about halfway through this process. There are the four people on the flight deck that will be running the rendezvous. Obviously Dex is in charge and then Jim and Stephanie and Clay, they’ll all be up there, and Naoko and I will come in helping with the actual docking system. We’ll power it up and just check it out a little bit and make sure it’s ready to go. Once we actually dock with station, we help to drive the hooks and actually pull the two vehicles together. So, my part is kind of at the end, and then we get to go over and see the station folks.
And once you board, you say ‘hi’ as you said…
That’s right, and then we get a safety briefing.
Okay, and what other things are on tap for you that day?
I have to actually make sure that right away I get some stuff. We’re getting ready for the next day which is the MPLM and there’s some stuff in the MPLM that I need to make sure that we have ready for the EVAs.
Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson are scheduled to do three spacewalks on this mission. Give us an overview of what’s scheduled to happen on EVA 1 and what your involvement will be for that EVA and what you’re doing that day.
So like I said, I’m the IV crew member which means I run the checklist and make sure that Rick and Clay are on their part of the timeline, and then also that I tag up with the ground. We keep everyone in sync and safe. I’ll be at the flight deck of the shuttle and looking at camera views, trying to keep these guys in my view, as well as using their helmet cameras to know where they are, and I’ll walk them through the checklist. On this day we’re prepping the old ammonia tank to take out. Then we’re going to the payload bay and getting the new ammonia tank. We actually have to attach a fixed grapple bar because it doesn’t have that when it comes up for the space station arm to grab. Then Clay and Rick will leave the payload bay. The arm will take the ammonia tank, and Rick’s going to get the impact feed, which is an experiment that’s been out on the porch, if you will, of the JEM and he’ll bring that back. Clay will meet us over at our ESP 2 where they’ll help put on the adjustable grapple so that the ammonia tank can now be put in the POA overnight where it will be stowed. Then, they have an RGA that needs to be replaced on this mission, so they’ll go off and replace the RGA. They also have battery prep out on P-6 that they’ll be doing some torque changes and prepping for the next mission, for STS-132.
Seems that, to me anyway, being a teacher probably suits you well as an IV member. It’s kind of like instructing the class.
Have you found that to be the case in training?
I’ve found that it is a little bit like teaching where you’re trying to make sure you’re on the same page, and you know what’s going on. You know that if the lesson gets over early you have a bunch of other stuff that you can bring in that needs to be accomplished at some point. You’re checking with the principals down on the ground, making sure everything’s followed there and making sure the guys are safe outside, so it’s a little bit like teaching.
There is a place holder day in the mission schedule that will allow for a procedure called Focused Inspection. If that happens, can you give us an idea of how that procedure will proceed and what you will do for it?
Focused Inspection happens because something has damaged the shuttle enough that it’s raised a concern on the ground that they want to go inspect it more so that we know if we need to do a repair or not. That means that as a robotic arm operator for the shuttle, we would probably get this procedure about the night before and review it and see where we need to move the arm and where we’ll be doing the inspection with our sensor package. It’s real time, meaning that you have to be a little extra cautious because it’s not something you can train exactly. It’s also something that we really hope we don’t have to do, but if you do have to do it, it’s not a problem. We have trained other real time procedures that have been done in the past. Jim and I would be working with Stephanie and Dex to make sure this all comes about.
Then on the second spacewalk of the mission, Rick and Clay are back outside again. Again give us an idea of what work sites they’ll be visiting and what they’ll do there.
EVA 2 is all about the ammonia tank. We have to take the old ammonia tank off of the back of station. It’s up on the truss on the starboard side. They will remove it and hand it off to the arm, and then the arm operators which will be Jim and Stephanie will be taking the old ammonia tank and will temporary stow on the CETA cart. We’ll have the CETA cart over on the port side of the front of station, and then we’ll go get the new ammonia tank out of the POA. As you remember from EVA 1, we had the adjustable grapple bar added to it. Well, now we’ve got to take it off because we don’t need it. It would harm the way we would install it on the back of the truss, so we’ll take that off and temp stow that, bring the ammonia tank back over, and Clay and Rick will install that. There are some umbilicals that need to be connected up or some QD’s as we call them and some electricals. The ground could then check out and make sure that all happened well, and in the meantime we’ll go back over, take the old ammonia tank, hand it back to the arm, and it will be taking it off to the payload bay, not that day, but it will be heading back that direction. Then at the end of that EVA with the remaining time that we have, there are some shields that were taken off during STS-129 that Rick and Clay need to go get off of ESP 2 and bring inside, but most of the day is centered around the ammonia tank.
And if you would go ahead and close out the EVAs by giving us an overview of what happens on EVA 3.
Sure. So EVA 3, we meet the arm back at the payload bay, and put that old ammonia tank back at the back of the shuttle, and get it all hooked down. Remove the fixed grapple bar, it’s not needed, on the ground, it’s needed still on station. Then Clay will be getting into the arm and doing a couple R&Rs, as we call them. First he needs to go over and get LWAPA off of Columbus, and take that back to the payload bay and stow it underneath the ammonia tank. Once he’s done there, he’ll go over to the SPDM which is now in the bottom of the lab, and he’s going to be putting in a camera and light assembly. So he’ll be working there. He’s spending a part of his EVA on the arm. In the meantime, Rick will be working on installing a new light assembly onto the lab camera, so he’ll be over there in that area. Then, if there are any other get-aheads that may have dropped off other EVAs from STS-130, or of things that the ground needs us to do, and we know there is a list, we just haven’t prioritized all of it yet, that will happen the rest of the EVA.
Do you have any space shuttle memories that you can share with us and tell us why those moments impacted you the way that they have?
Yes, I remember watching launches when I was in the elementary school on the TV, just kind of a big deal because your teacher had to check it out from the AV folks at school because there wasn’t a TV in every classroom like there is today. I just thought it was so amazing to watch these, and I never thought I was going to be on one, so I remember watching that. We almost got to see a launch when I was in fourth grade and we were down in Florida at Disney World, but weather scrubbed that, so we didn’t get to see a launch. It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d finally see that. Of course, I remember Challenger, I was in sixth grade, and it’s one of those moments that you remember where you were and how it impacted you. I didn’t ever think that we should give up on space exploration, so I was really glad to see that the U.S. continued on. I remember Hubble, because Hubble went up shortly I went to Space Camp, and we’d done a lot of work on learning about it. Of course, initially we were disappointed not everything was working out as expected, but then it was so thrilling to see all those other pictures that finally came back and all the information that we still continue to learn from Hubble. I also remember coming to NASA to work here. Shuttle has been my life since I was growing up. It’s the only vehicle I know.