Apollo 11 turns 50: NASA astronaut who had sushi in space shares it all

A space odyssey: US astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger

A space odyssey: US astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger  

Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, a former NASA astronaut, talks about preparing for space and what it is like to be perched on top of the world

Sushi in space. That may sound like an unlikely dish when astronauts are floating in zero gravity, but that’s exactly what former NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, 44, was treated to one night, when her Japanese colleagues decided to whip up a meal. Space is not as dreary and scary as most sci-fi movies promise. Going by her adventures, it sounds like hard work, but also fun.

As part of a nationwide event hosted by the US Consulate-General, Chennai, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the retired astronaut recently addressed a group of students from schools across the country via video conference from the US.

In Chennai, students of science and technology gathered at the BM Birla Planetarium to hear Metcalf-Lindenburger speak about her 15-day Space Shuttle Discovery Mission (STS-131) that she undertook in April 2010, to resupply the International Space Station.

“NASA has quite an incredible selection process. Can you imagine from 18,000 (applicants) going down to 12,” she says adding, “You do have to have a Bachelor’s degree in Science or Engineering or Maths and Technology.” After applying to NASA, Metcalf-Lindenburger waited for six months before she was called to Johnson Space Center, Houston.

She had to go through a battery of medical tests, learn about her heart and internal organs, do breathing and psychology tests, a treadmill test, and aptitude test for space walk and robotics. Then came the battle training in Maine, where the selected team of astronauts did a survival training course under the Navy SERE school. “We had to work out a scenario and survive in the wilderness, work on mapping skills and evacuations. At NASA, we also did a lot of simulation training.”

Tough times

Next, the fresh crop of astronauts headed to Florida for water survival training.

“That is the worse thing that happened in training. I was a high school swimmer and didn’t like drowning. And this felt like a day of forced drowning. But this way you learn that if you are calm and you stay focussed, you can accomplish what you want and come out successful.”

Next on the training list was flying the T-38, an aircraft to help them train for space. On this aircraft, they learn to deal with weather, low fuel, navigation communication systems... “There are 1,500 switches and circuit breakers inside a space shuttle. I spent many weekends and evenings practising and working through all sorts of problems.”

US astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger inside the space shuttle

US astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger inside the space shuttle  

During mock-ups, she says she got to wear the space suit: “it is bulky, heavy and hard on the shoulders, you can’t stretch your arms too much as it’s limited by joints, and you don’t have full vision as the helmet cuts off side vision.” “When you are hired, you can’t immediately go into space,” laughs Metcalf-Lindenburger.

After being assigned as a crew member, it took five-and-a-half years before she could set out on a mission. In that time, she trained on more simulators, learnt Russian and had an office job — making sure the crew members in space are being taken care of. Metcalf-Lindenburger says she applied in 2003, a month after the Columbia space shuttle disaster.

When asked if that made her nervous, Metcalf-Lindenburger says, “As a child, I also saw the loss of the Challenger. Both remind us space is very difficult. But I have lost other friends in tragedies or things that are just everyday happenings. It’s also a reminder that our lives are short, but they can be well lived. KC (Kalpana Chawla) and the crew aboard 107 were doing things they loved and believed in. Their mission was all about medical science and they were making medical advancements. It is a reminder to live life to the fullest.”

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 2:17:08 AM |

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