There aren’t many people who can say they’ve walked in space. Twice.
And even rarer, there’s only one person who’s been drafted by the NFL and walked in space: Leland Melvin.
As part of the programming for the Virginia Museum of History & Culture’s newest exhibit “Apollo: When We Went to the Moon,” Virginia astronaut Leland Melvin will discuss his book, “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace and Second Chances” on Saturday, April 15.
A Lynchburg native, Melvin attended the University of Richmond on a football scholarship, but before signing his letter of intent, he asked his coach if he’d be able to play football and get a chemistry degree. Assured that he could, Melvin signed and was a wide receiver from 1982 through 1985. His senior season in 1985 was his best, with 65 catches for 956 yards and eight touchdowns. Notably, he caught at least one pass in every game he played as a Richmond Spider.
Turns out there were advantages to being a chemistry major and athlete.
“To the chagrin of my teammates, I missed most of the hard practices on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because I was in chemistry lab,” he says with a chuckle. “But it was an important lesson that you could do two things and do them well. I’d be catching the ball and running the field on Saturday and on Monday, I’d be in the lab synthesizing potential cancer saving compounds. Richmond was able to give me all that as a student athlete.”
After being drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1986, Melvin suffered a hamstring pull and was released. The following spring, he reported to the Dallas Cowboys’ camp but pulled his hamstring a second time, effectively ending his NFL career. Starting graduate school at the University of Virginia seemed like a logical next step.
It was in 1989 after finishing up his master’s degree that Melvin’s journey to space began to take flight. He started working at NASA Langley Research Center as a researcher in the Fiber Optic Sensors Group of the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Branch. Although a friend had told him he’d make a great astronaut, Melvin didn’t see it. Applying to be an astronaut wasn’t on his radar until a friend did and got in, opening his eyes to the possibilities. “I said to myself, wait a minute, if that knucklehead can get in, I can get in,” Melvin jokes.
In 1998, he was selected by NASA JC to begin Astronaut Candidate Training, during which he lost his hearing during an underwater training exercise. “They told me I’d never fly in space, but I also had a lot of people telling me not to give up,” he recalls. “It took me ten years to get a chance to fly. That’s a long time to train and wait and see.”
His hearing came back, but then there was the demoralizing tragedy of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Melvin moved to Texas where the “original seven” –Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton- had lived. He’d walk his dogs past John Glenn’s house and one day Glenn asked to pet his dog. “And I’m thinking, he walked on the moon and he’s petting my dog,” Melvin marvels.
He went on to complete two space flights, STS-122 in 2008, and STS-129 in 2009, logging in over 565 hours in space. Even with all those hours, keeping track of personal items was tough because when an astronaut removes shrink-wrapped items from his locker, they float. “You’d lose something and it would wind up floating over your head where you couldn’t see it,” he says. “It’s not natural to look up for something, so you have to learn that.”
Football, chemistry and space are only a few of Melvin’s interests. When he was in fourth grade, his mother gave him a camera and he started taking photographs and developing them in the family laundry room. “If my mother had clothes hanging up down there, they’d end up smelling like fixer,” he laughs. “I’d take pictures of my classmates at school, develop them and then sell them back to the kids.”
With a father who was a musician, it was only natural that Melvin took lessons -piano, clarinet and violin- and developed a lifelong love of music. “I was dad’s roadie, setting up the drums and PA system at shows,” he says. “Learning to play instruments allowed me to experiment and develop my creative side.”
Melvin is eager to discuss the link between the arts and STEM, insisting that it’s critical to embrace both sides of learning. Before his first flight into space, musician Quincy Jones called him to discuss music and math as the true absolutes. “Quincy told me that it’s all one continuum of learning, whether it’s composing ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ or actually flying to the moon,” he recalls.
“My mission now is to talk to kids and let them know that they don’t have to choose one or the other, left brain or right brain. That kind of thinking keeps some kids from wanting to be scientists because they enjoy music or art,” he explains. “I tell them to try a lot of things to see what they’re good at as a way to discover their passion. STEAM (STEM plus the arts) covers anything you could want to be. And be a lifelong learner.”
Leland Melvin gives a talk on “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace and Second Chances,” on Saturday, April 15 at 3 p.m., Virginia Museum of History and Culture, 428 N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard, virginiahistory.org. Tickets required and include day-of-program access to “Apollo: When We Went to the Moon.”