Astronaut returns to Vancouver school where she taught

Educator's down-to-Earth message: Dream big, work hard

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



The STS-131 mission was accomplished in 15 days, 2 hours, 47 minutes and 10 seconds.

The crew traveled 6,232,235 miles in 238 orbits.


Former Vancouver teacher Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger returned to Hudson’s Bay High School in a new role Friday morning, as an astronaut who recently spent two weeks in space.

The STS-131 mission was accomplished in 15 days, 2 hours, 47 minutes and 10 seconds.

The crew traveled 6,232,235 miles in 238 orbits.


But Metcalf-Lindenburger can still teach. In an assembly in the Bay gym, the former science instructor and coach offered a lesson in setting goals and then putting in the work to achieve them.

She was accompanied by her husband, Jason Metcalf-Lindenburger, who was a social studies teacher at McLoughlin Middle School, and their 3-year-old daughter, Cambria.

Metcalf-Lindenburger was part of Mission 131 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, which launched on April 5 and returned to Earth on April 20.

Metcalf-Lindenburger took along a Hudson’s Bay pennant that she presented to the school.

“It’s traveled 6 million miles,” she said.

Among her duties, Metcalf-Lindenburger directed three space walks from inside the International Space Station while a pair of astronauts replaced a one-ton ammonia tank.

“My job was to make sure the men were safe, that they turned the right bolts the right number of times, and that they brought all the tools back,” she said.

The space-walkers’ suits weighed 350 pounds apiece, she said. “We had to attach them to a wall to get them out.”

In that line of work, even a highly technical task has its spectacular moments, she said: “It’s fun to watch the Earth go by.”

From her vantage point some 200 miles above Earth, Metcalf-Lindenburger said, she actually could pick out a few familiar landmarks.

Once she was able to zero in on Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, “I could see Vancouver Lake,” she said.

And over Texas, “I could see the highway that runs past our house in Houston.”

In her presentation, Metcalf-Lindenburger offered some glimpses of life in weightlessness. In one video clip, an astronaut flicked a salted cherry blossom inside a big water droplet right into the mouth of a crewmate.

It’s also an environment that orbits the Earth at 5 miles a second.

“You sleep with eyeshades, because you have 45 minutes of light and 45 minutes of dark,” she said.

The 35-year-old astronaut pointed out that Friday was the 27th anniversary of the day when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.

“I grew up knowing a woman could do this,” she said.

Working for a dream

She was interested in becoming an astronaut, but she did more than dream. She studied math and science and was a college athlete.

It all came together in 2003 when an astronomy student asked her how astronauts go to the bathroom in space. Metcalf-Lindenburger found the answer on NASA’s Web site — and also saw that NASA was looking for educator astronauts.

“She had sent applications to graduate schools,” Jason Metcalf-Lindenburger said, so a lot of the paperwork was already done.

After applying, she got the call from NASA in 2004.

“We were so excited for her,” said 21-year-old Zachary Laughlin. He was in her earth science class in 2004, and was one of several former students who showed up Friday morning to greet Metcalf-Lindenburger. “I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

His sister, Cassie Laughlin, wasn’t one of the astronaut’s students but she learned a big lesson from Metcalf-Lindenburger.

“If you stick with something, it’s possible,” the 17-year-old Prairie student said.

Getting selected was just the start, Metcalf-Lindenburger said. Next came six years of training.

“There is a lot of classroom work,” she said, in addition to lots of practical hands-on instruction.

The space shuttle has 1,500 switches and other controls, she said, and “You take classes on all of them.”

There is similar classwork on operating the systems aboard the International Space Station. She learned how to fly a jet, and she learned to speak Russian.

“We’re life-long learners,” Metcalf-Lindenburger said.

But there were some things that can’t be previewed in a classroom — or even a zero-gravity simulation.

On Earth, everything inside the human body tends to stay where it belongs, thanks to gravity. But in orbit, “All that stuff in the body is floating around,” she said.

She got sick a couple of times, but she equated it to a queasy stretch of distance running.

“You throw up and go on. It’s like that,” she said. By Day 2 in microgravity, “It was awesome.”

The space shuttle program is winding down, with Clark County native Mike Barratt slated to participate in one of the final flights. But Metcalf-Lindenburger hopes to remain with NASA for a while and eventually return to space.

“I’d like to get a long-duration space flight,” she said. “Six months.”

That’s a big dream. But if there was a take-away message from her presentation, Metcalf-Lindenburger said, it comes down to this:

“Dream big, and back it up with hard work.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558 or