Next week when the space shuttle Discovery begins its mission to the International Space Station, a Spokane passenger will be on board – Flat Marie, all seven inches of her, tucked neatly in the crew notebook of astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger.
Flat Marie is the paper cutout emissary of 5-year-old Marie Plowman, a preschool student at Spokane’s First Presbyterian Christian School, whose class has undertaken a Flat Stanley project.
“Flat Stanley” is a book about a boy who is flattened when a bulletin board falls on him and he goes on adventures by slipping into an envelope and being mailed to new and exciting places. In 1995 a Canadian educator expanded the story into a pen-pal project in which students “mail themselves” to willing recipients who then take the paper dolls out for the day and return them with memorabilia of their adventures.
It’s a wonderful way for children to learn about other cultures, cities, countries and geography, said Dee Lafferty, Marie’s teacher. There are now Flat Stanley projects in schools in nearly 50 countries.
“I sent an e-mail to Astronaut Dottie this winter to ask if she would participate by telling us what it’s like being an astronaut and some interesting things about where she lives,” said Marie’s mother, Stephanie Plowman, special collections librarian at Gonzaga University. “She e-mailed right back and said that she would not only be willing to do that but that she would be happy to take Flat Marie along on the mission as well.”
The shuttle is scheduled to lift off Monday from Cape Canaveral for a 13-day mission to the space station to deliver science materials. “I’m going to blast off into outer space!” said Marie, who colored her Flat Marie with images of lollipops and candy before it was sent off for the big adventure.
The Plowmans are connected to mission specialist Metcalf-Lindenburger, a former earth science and astronomy teacher, through Stephanie Plowman’s father, Tom Edwards of Portland, a retired history professor at Whitman College (where the future astronaut attended college) who maintains a close relationship with Metcalf-Lindenburger and her husband. Edwards and his wife Nannette will be attending the launch as invited guests.
Marie’s class will be following the mission online and will be creating a space museum, complete with papier mâché planets, and learning facts about gravity, the sun and other elements of space. “This is a great opportunity to see how vast the universe is,” Lafferty said. “We are a Christian school, so we can see as amazing as it is that God cares for us, the whole universe is in his hands.”
Students in the class have been getting back their own Flat Friends from places around the globe, including Nigeria and Germany. And as they return home, discussions are had in class about where they have been, how far they have traveled and locator pins placed on a world map. Lafferty said she’s going to have to be creative in figuring out mileage for the shuttle and finding a way to put it on the map.
Meantime Marie and her family – which also includes father Gary, an oboist with the Spokane Symphony, and brother Reid, 7 – are eagerly awaiting the launch. Does this inspire Marie to want to go into space herself?
“Well,” she said, “maybe when I grow up I could be an astronaut. But I think I want to think about that for a while.” She’s really leaning toward being a veterinarian, but she’s not ruling anything out yet.
As exciting as it is for the kids in Lafferty’s class to have Flat Marie going into space, there were nearly two Flat Friends from the class on the STS 131 shuttle mission. Marie’s classmate Troy Sheikh got his request in too late to be able to have his Flat Troy go. His father Mike was in the 1991 Air Force Academy graduating class along with his friend STS 131 pilot James Dutton. There will be a minireunion of the class of 1991 at the Kennedy Space Center next week, where they will watch the launch, and the entire Sheikh family will be present.
“What are the odds that two kids in the same class would know astronauts on the same mission?” their teacher asked. She laughed out loud before providing the answer: “Astronomical!”