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Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger

Personal Essay

I am the daughter of two teachers – a high school math teacher and a junior high science and shop teacher. Their background in education, the environment of my native state, Colorado, and the excitement of space in the 1980s resulted in my passion to work at NASA.

Before we started school, my parents took my sister and me to the Denver Museum of Natural History. I was impressed by the dinosaurs, mineral display, exotic animals, and planetarium. Voyager’s discoveries were just coming out as part of shows at the planetarium, and they were filling coffee table books that my parents purchased. As a result, I fell in love with our solar system. My parents continued to fuel this love, by taking me to see the film “The Right Stuff” and talking about the shuttle launches in Florida. They helped me search for Haley’s comet, and they watched lunar eclipses through the telescope Santa brought me for Christmas in 6th grade.

Looking at the night sky became one of my favorite pastimes, and Colorado’s weather and altitude is perfect for a star gazer. When I went camping with friends, I sometimes brought the telescope along. If it was not too cold, we would lay out in just our sleeping bags and watch the meteor showers.

In 1989, I entered a writing contest about space exploration. I didn’t take first place, which was an all-expense-paid trip to Space Camp. Instead, I took second place and received a nice polo shirt from NASA. My parents knew how much I wanted to go to Space Camp, so during my spring break in April 1990, I flew to Huntsville to attend. After that week, I knew that someday I wanted to work for the space program.

As I get older and look back at April 1990, it takes on more meaning. Not only did I decide then that I wanted to someday be a part of space exploration, but also it was the month the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. And, 20 years later, it would be during the same month that I took my first journey to space.

After studying geology in college, I went on to become a high school earth science and astronomy teacher. Hubble’s fascinating photos and discoveries provided wonderful lessons for my high school students. They were intrigued by the first shuttle mission that corrected the telescope’s optics, and they loved looking at the life cycle of stars that can be put together from so many of the images returned. It was in one of these astronomy classes that I had a student ask me, “How do astronauts go to the bathroom in space?” To find the answer, I went to Google, which took me to the NASA Website. In addition to receiving the answer to my student’s question, I found an application for applying to be an educator astronaut.

A little over 1 year after applying for the job, I received a call from Colonel Robert Cabana, head of the Astronaut Office. I was in my classroom and, once I realized he was calling to hire me, I burst into a shout of excitement. Life certainly changed after we moved to Houston. I went from being a teacher to being a learner all over again. The vehicles I was already impressed with became so much more amazing as I learned about their systems and how they operate. By meeting engineers, flight controllers, and instructors, I finally realized my dream – to work with the NASA team.

On April 5, 2010, I climbed into the vehicle Discovery. She was much more dynamic than at the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test a few weeks earlier. The liftoff is somewhat a blur to me, but the 15 days of working with the STS-131 crew and the International Space Station crew are very vivid. Whether I was intensely focused on the details of the spacewalks that I assisted in as an intravehicular activity specialist, or quietly floating by a window to reflect on portions of the Earth I’ve never visited, I loved the entire experience – an experience that I credit with starting years ago due to the enthusiasm and persistence of two teachers, my parents.


A photograph of Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger

Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger, the daughter of two teachers with a love of the space program, has “The Right Stuff.” As a NASA astronaut who flew with the crew of STS-131 to the International Space Station, Ms. Metcalf-Lindenburger has risen to heights that make those of the Mile High City of Denver, in which she grew up, pale by comparison. It may have been inevitable that Ms. Metcalf-Lindenburger would follow in her parents’ footsteps to become a high school earth science and astronomy teacher – and inevitable, too, that she would copy them by sharing her love of the space program with her students. As Ms. Metcalf-Lindenburger writes, while she found photos from the Hubble Space Telescope “fascinating,” it was her fascination that bred a similar fascination about spaceflight in her students. And, it was one of her students who, in raising the question “How do astronauts go to the bathroom in space?”, led Ms. Metcalf-Lindenburger to a NASA Website that not only provided her the answer but also an application to become an educator astronaut. As an earth science and astronomy teacher, Ms. Metcalf-Lindenburger seemed a natural fit for the astronaut program – she had earned her bachelor’s degree in geology from Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, and her teaching certificate from Central Washington University, Ellensburg – but it was her enthusiasm and eagerness for spaceflight, that “Right Stuff” nurtured in her by two teachers, her parents, that made her stand out among all other candidates to win her a much-coveted place in the astronaut program.