Interview and Story By Brady Rhoades
On a day he’ll never forget, astronaut Leland Melvin saw 24 sunsets in 24 hours. He flew over his hometown of Lynchburg, Va., and thought of his family, his modest and healthy upbringing; seven minutes later he was over Paris.
It wasn’t lost on him that he was African-American and his crew members included women, Russians, people from all walks of life.
“It made me contemplate my existence,” he said. “My faith was stronger, more magnified, and doing it with people we used to fight against.”
An Unusual Route
Melvin, 57, and, in his post-astronaut career, a prominent advocate for STEAM, did not take the usual route to space. He was a wide receiver in the NFL, but he suffered a career-ending injury and Act II of a remarkable life journey was on.
Since childhood, he’d been interested in engineering, though he was known for his exploits on the gridiron. He starred at his high school, at University of Richmond and, in his short stint in the pros, for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys.
Along the way, he earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in materials science engineering.
It’s been said that luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity.
Melvin’s post-NFL opportunity came at a job fair. A recruiter tracked him down and told him, “You’re coming to work at NASA.”
A Team Player
This was in the 1980s. Melvin said his mental image of NASA involved white men with crew cuts. He wasn’t far off. “Historically, NASA has been myopically focused on a certain mindset,” he said. He became part of a sea-change in the world’s most esteemed space organization.
“The biggest part of succeeding in a NASA culture is to be a team member,” he said. “Just like sports and mathematics. That’s why diversity is so important. You look at things in a different way. To work at NASA, you have to allow yourself to be heard.
People sometimes don’t speak up because they’ve been marginalized.”
Melvin started his career in aerospace working in the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Branch at NASA Langley Research Center in 1989. In 1994, he was selected to lead the Vehicle Health Monitoring team for the NASA/Lockheed Martin X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle program. In 1996, he co-designed and monitored construction of an optical nondestructive evaluation facility capable of producing in-line fiber optic sensors.
He became an astronaut in 1998, after sustaining a traumatic ear injury during underwater training exercises and, eventually, being cleared to fly despite his lifelong impairment.
He flew two missions – 565 hours of total log time – on the Space Shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist on STS-122, and as mission specialist 1 on STS-129. The STS-122 mission was accomplished in 12 days, 18 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds, and traveled 5.2 million miles in 203 Earth orbits. The STS-129 mission was completed in 10 days, 19 hours, 16 minutes and 13 seconds, traveling 4.5 million miles in 171 orbits.
Associate Administrator for Education and Astronaut Leland Melvin talks with school children during the “Build the Future” activity where students created their vision of the future in space with LEGO bricks and elements inside a tent that was set up on the launch viewing area at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
While in space, he completed a football pass to another astronaut. He also took hundreds of jaw-dropping photographs.
After hanging up his space boots, he was appointed head of NASA Education and served as the co-chair on the White House’s Federal Coordination in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM} Education Task Force, developing the nation’s five-year STEM education plan. Leland was the United States’ representative and chair of the International Space Education Board, a global collaboration on learning about space.
He uses his life story as an athlete, astronaut, scientist, engineer, photographer and musician to help inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM} careers.
One of his mantras is, “Data over bias.” Bias separates people. Data-sharing brings them together and leads to advances in STEAM and in society.
Space exploration, he said, is about “going someplace you haven’t been and getting over your biases.” It’s a universal win-win, or what he calls “Mission Possible.” And Melvin trusts it will lead to even bigger things. “We’re not going to have a colony on Mars, but we are going to have a human outpost,” he said, preferring the latter term.
Starring in the NFL and flying in outer space are two colossal endeavors. He’s the only human being to do both. He’s also authored two books, “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances” and “Chasing Space: Young Reader’s Edition.” He’s an accomplished photographer (visit LelandMelvin.com for images}.
On the same website, he gives kid-friendly lessons on, among other things, how to build a rocket racer and how to dissolve the coating on your candy in a really cool way.
He plays the piano in his spare time. And he loves his dogs, who appear on the cover of both his books.
During his interview with Diversity in STEAM Magazine, he was busy feeding his dogs. We asked him what this world- renowned astronaut, explorer, athlete, photographer and teacher has learned from his pups.
“Presence,” he said. “We need to live like our dogs. Chill. Get something to eat. Yawn. Smile. Be like your dog.”
Speaking of presence, he drives home the importance of looking up and around as much as looking down at your devices. Imagine, for instance, an astronaut so fixated on the instruments inside the vessel that he or she forgets to appreciate the majesty of outer space. On a recent hiking trip, Melvin witnessed several young adults busy on their digital instruments.
“Right out there in nature!” he laughed. “There’s a balance between tech and digging your feet into Mother Earth.