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Dream Boldly | Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger provides a unique and inspiring view on what bold dreaming can achieve today.

Full talk transcript

In 1984, I dreamed a bold dream. It was because my teacher gave me this assignment, you know the one where they ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And you only just learned about a few jobs that are out there, and you're not really sure which one you would fit into.

Well a good thing is that in 1984 a few things had happened in America. First of all, Sally Ride had flown as the first American female astronaut. Kathryn Sullivan had done a spacewalk. I had been watching, and my parents had just taken me to see The Right Stuff, and the Denver Museum of Natural History was bringing back all sorts of interesting information from Mariner and Viking missions. And so I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I made this paper doll. I was hopefully not going to look like a ketchup bottle, but I wanted to be an astronaut. But I had other dreams. I wanted to be a teacher like my parents and my other heroine, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved digging in my backyard for fossils along the Front Range. I enjoyed going to Rocky Mountain National Park and exploring. And I've loved looking up at the night sky.

... The path before me was not going to be clearly marked. I was going to have to explore with many people along the way to help me.

Well, no matter what, the path before me was not going to be clearly marked. I was going to have to explore with many people along the way to help me. So it started in middle school with Mr. Jordan. Mr. Jordan saw that spark in me that I didn't know about. Mr. Jordan had this project where we took our food waste and we put it into crockpots, and we made the whole science wing smell up, and then we took that food waste and put it with yeast and we distilled it and we made ethanol to run his lawn mower. And I loved it! And Mr. Jordan asked me if I wanted to take my eighth grade spring break and go to California and present this to other teachers and students in a program called MESA, Math Engineering Science Applied.

Well, it meant that over my spring break I was going to have to practice to do this speech, and then I’d be flying to California, and then I’d be going to Disneyland! Yes, I wanted to do that! And I gave that speech and I saw what science could do. Science brought you together with other people who were collaborating to understand how to solve big problems; science helped you to meet those new people; science solved real problems. I wanted to be one of those scientists.

Other people were starting to hear about my big bold dream, and my teacher brought an application to me from Martin Marietta to introduce writing an essay about why we should go to Mars. I don't remember exactly what I wrote about, but I was pretty passionate about going to Mars. Although I only took second place — first place was a trip to Space Camp in Huntsville — second place is a pretty cool T-shirt from NASA.

My parents knew about my dream, and so they sent me in April of 1990 to Space Camp. I spent the week meeting new kids from around the country who were as interested in space as I was. I got to work on simulations with them, and I came home and I built this model of Discovery. Because, you see, in April of 1990, Discovery was taking up the Hubble Space Telescope so that we could understand more about our universe.

Well, I went into high school and I continued on the path of studying math and science. And I enjoyed multiple after-school activities — one of them included Science Olympiad. In Science Olympiad, I'd spend my Saturday afternoons up at the entomology department learning how to identify bugs. And there are some gross ones and there are some cool ones. I also built musical instruments and talked about the physics behind them and play them at competitions. And here we are as a team taking second place at state.

I went on to college and my freshman year brought me to the Pacific Northwest at Whitman. There in the wheat fields, I was not sure if I was going to study math or science. In my freshman introductory course to geology, I decided it would be science, because it took me outside and allowed me to solve problems with other people and explore the world around us. And it eventually took me to the mountains outside of Yellowstone, where I mapped glaciation in that vicinity. And it took me to the southern mountains in Colorado, where I mapped 2.5 billion-year-old rocks.

I loved geology, and I was becoming that scientist. So, like many graduating seniors from college, I had a plan, and that plan was to go teach English as a second language in Kazakhstan, and then return and go on to graduate school. Well, I don't get to control everything, and Kazakhstan was pulling away from Russia. And they weren't sending Peace Corps participants to Kazakhstan. So, now I had to come up with a new plan. I decided to stay here in Washington, go to Central Washington University, and get my teaching certification. That led me to a job at Hudson's Bay High School in Vancouver, Washington, where I started out teaching Earth science to ninth graders. Ninth graders are challenging, ninth graders are curious, ninth graders are a lot of fun.

As I continued to teach for the first two years, we started to see some things developing where students were not passing enough of their science courses to graduate. We wanted to retain them in our school because we want to prepare them as citizens. So we developed an astronomy class, an ecology class, and we hope that this would help recover the science credits.

I knew I had given my best, that I had fully shown up. And no matter if I was hired or not, I had gone after my dream.

I'd helped with the astronomy class, and my husband and I built a telescope with a six-foot focal length, and I would use it for star parties in the morning and in the evening so that they could come in for extra credit. And it was in this astronomy class that one of my students asked a very important question: How do you go to the bathroom in space? I didn't know. I didn’t know what the toilet looked like. So I went home that evening and because I really cared about the student — I really wanted her to stay in high school — I did a web search. And NASA's website brought up a very good explanation of how the toilet works in space. On that same website they had a ticker that said that they were hiring teachers as part of the class of 2004.

I froze. This was the answer to my question. I wanted to be an astronaut, yet I enjoyed teaching. I could combine the two things I love into one. I had to apply. So I went ahead and applied. At first I came down to Houston in November of 2003, and I went through a week of the interview process and all the medical tests, and I then had to wait for six months before I even got an answer.

But it didn't matter, because when I had gone in and interviewed, I knew I had given my best, that I had fully shown up, and no matter if I was hired or not, I had gone after my dream. Well, as you can see, I did get hired with the class of 2004. And it was an honor to be a part of this group. But once you're hired as astronaut, that does not mean that you are an astronaut ready to fly.

You have a year and a half to two years of training before you — training that included wilderness survival, water survival, learning how to fly in Pensacola in the back seat of the T-34, the prop plane which then prepared me to fly in the jet as a back-seater. And at first as the back-seater, you're just gonna do the communication. You’re gonna talk with the ground. But eventually you develop the skills where you’re flying the plane, you're communicating, and you're navigating. And this allows you to be ready to fly in space.

It also meant lots of weekends of going in and studying on shuttle simulators. Learning those 1500 switches and circuit breakers, learning about the systems that run the main engine, the reaction control system, the hydraulics. Then, eventually, as a team of four you step into the motion simulator, which takes you from launch to hopefully a safe insertion into orbit and then back. But if you are familiar with the simulator community, they're not gonna let it be that easy, they're gonna throw every problem that they can to see how you work as a team. And many times you're gonna fail, and as a team you’re quickly going to assess the things that went wrong, cheer each other back up, and get ready for another launch.

Well, in 2006, we graduated as a class. And then we had time to wait around, and do office jobs, do further training, because we were still waiting to return the shuttle back to flight. In that time frame we had our daughter Cambria, and here you can see the telescope that we had built and she's coming to a training event at the neutral buoyancy lab.

In 2008, I would get another important call. My boss Steve Lenzi said, “I'd like you to fly with the SCS 131 mission." Alan Poindexter, a Navy pilot would be our commander, and here he is shown with the three women on my flight. Stephanie Wilson, who was already an experienced astronaut and had two flights under her belt; Naoko Yamazaki, who was one of my classmates; and me. In addition, we had Jim Dutton, an Air Force pilot from Eugene; Rick Mastracchio, who was also an experienced veteran; and Clay Anderson, another veteran of many fights.

On April 5, 2010, we walked out of the building, got into this vehicle that takes you out to the pad — we were ready for our flight. And I have been waiting for this day for a long time. In fact, if you remember back, it was exactly 20 years since 1990, when I had built the model of Discovery, and I would be launching on Discovery.

Before I got into that shuttle, I look out across the river, knowing that my family was on the other side. My parents, my husband, my daughter, the teachers I had, the good friends I had met along the way. And I gotta tell you, walking into that shuttle was almost a little bit easier than coming up here on this stage.

I set a record with four women in space ... I got to look out of the cupola, and watch the Earth go by, and I'm happy to say that while I was up there, the Northwest was clear, and I saw those volcanoes and could identify the cities that I love.

Well, I had a mission before me that I wanted to perform well. I didn't want any of my actions to impact my crew mates, or to have any bad consequences. So I started out carefully in space. I followed all those checklists and made sure I was backing up my partners. And as the days went by, it became more and more smooth, until it was just like we had been practicing the weeks before. Here, I'm suiting up Clay and Rick as they go out for one of their spacewalks. I was the crew member inside talking to them throughout these spacewalks. Three of them, seven hours at a time — it's keeping track of all of their safety tethers, all of the hooks that are holding equipment, all the bags, all the bolt turns. It was really rewarding.

This is the cockpit I set up — I have all those checklists floating around me. You can lean back anywhere you want in space, so I felt like looking out the windows and watching them as I kept track of everything. During one of our spacewalks, while they were underneath the truss here, I asked them to just pause, because the sun was rising, and we're not gonna get this moment again. I meant, you know, I'm never going to get that moment again — and so as they paused I took this photo, and I thought it captured the beauty of our engineering as well as the fragility of our Earth below.

I got a chance to be with 13 people, representing multiple space adventures across the globe. The Japanese space agency, the Russian space agency, and NASA. I set a record with four women in space. I got to see the textbook examples of geology around the world. I finally got to see the Aurora and I'm still waiting to see it here on Earth. I got to look out of the cupola, and watch the Earth go by, and I'm happy to say that while I was up there, the Northwest was clear, and I saw those volcanoes and could identify the cities that I love.

I worked with an awesome team, a team that is my family. And this team eventually had to say goodbye to each other and prepare to return back to Earth to the other team that we love. So on April 20, 2010, we landed in Florida —15 days later. We had accomplished our goal. I had achieved my dream. But does that mean that dreaming is over once you've accomplished the big one — is that it? Absolutely not. You see the little girl who dreamed about being an astronaut, about floating in space — she's still here, and she’s still dreaming, and she brought her family here to the Pacific Northwest to keep those dreams going. Because this is a place for us, a place that inspires us.

And so my wish for you, as you go to sit down at your Thanksgiving dinners or your holiday plans, is that you make those bold dreams and that you tell other people about them, because you never know where the journey is going to take you. Thank you, Seattle.


Speaker Bio

Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger is an astronaut now working in Seattle who was a mission specialist with NASA on the International Space Station and on the Space Shuttle on STS-131. She also has a passion for science education, especially geology and entomology. Dottie was working as a high school science teacher, when a classroom question led her to the NASA website and their program for teachers to become astronauts. She was selected by NASA as a mission specialist and spent two years in intensive training. Read more