From the NFL to Orbit: Astronaut Leland Melvin Speaks in Greensboro on Saturday
Former NFL wide receiver and astronaut Leland Melvin became an internet sensation in February when a photo of him with his dogs Jake and Scout went viral. So expect a crowd at 4 p.m., Nov. 18, when Melvin speaks at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center, located at 1921 W. Gate City Blvd. The event, which closes the Public Library’s One City, One Book celebration, is free and open to the public.
Melvin’s trajectory from the Detroit Lions to the International Space Station is unique in sports or space. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, he studied chemistry at the University of Richmond and earned his Master’s in Engineering from the University of Virginia. Melvin served on the shuttle Atlantis and the ISS and was named NASA’s Associate Administrator of Education in 2010 before retiring in 2014. Last April, his memoir Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances, was published by Harper-Collins.
He never intended to be an astronaut, although he’d been science-minded since 1971 when Grace Melvin gave her 7-year-old a chemistry set and he ignited the carpet. “I got the expected spanking,” he said in a phone interview, but the experience sparked more than shag. Good at both sports and academics, he attended Richmond on a football scholarship and was drafted by the Lions. “A hamstring ended that,” he said, “but Dallas wanted me next season.” Awaiting training camp, Melvin worked as a research assistant at UVA, where a professor recommended him for the Master’s Program. Once accepted, he continued his studies while training with the Cowboys, practicing eight hours a day and watching VHS lectures at night.
Except for the night he and Danny White tossed a ball around. White threw and Melvin suffered a second hamstring going for it. With his NFL career over, he concentrated on his Master’s.
“When I graduated,” he said, “I was recruited by Rosa Webster, a physicist who worked with Katherine Johnson, one of the ‘human computers’ in the book Hidden Figures. She insisted I join NASA. Engineering paid better, but Rosa wasn’t somebody you said no to.”
He never intended to become an astronaut, not even after a friend gave him an application. “Then another friend, Charlie Camarda, got accepted,” he said. “I thought if that knucklehead can get in, I can.”
He did, with help from Apollo 16 commander John Young, who heard Melvin lecture at NASA Langley. “I was being interviewed by astronauts and senior leaders, and Young told them I was doing really great research. That didn’t hurt, having a man who’s walked on the moon go to bat for you.” Where many of his peers had prepared for years, Melvin learned on the fly, eventually logging over 565 hours in space.
I declined to ask Melvin one question many friends suggested, as astronauts are tired of explaining how they pee in the orange “pumpkin suit.” There was another I’d sadly guessed the answer to. Not realizing the photo of two adorable but clearly adult lab mixes was taken eight years ago, friends wanted to hear about his dogs
“Jake lived until he was 15 and had a very full life,” he said. “Scout was younger but had lymphoma.” Melvin said he’s in the process of getting another dog. “The rescue place may have some puppies coming up soon.”
In September, he again went viral on Facebook and Twitter, when his disgust at Donald Trump’s very different reactions to the Charlottesville and Colin Kaepernick motivated Melvin to write a public letter to the president. “I was appalled by his calling a black man engaging in peaceful protest a son of a bitch,” Melton said. He added that he found it “particularly reprehensible” after the president “responded to Nazis with assault rifles chanting ‘Make America White Again’ at my alma mater by saying there were ‘very fine people on both sides.’”
Our conversation didn’t conclude on that dark note. Melvin is pleased by NASA’s evolution since 1966, when Ed Dwight, who could have been the first African-American in space, resigned due to hostility from the top brass, and all astronauts were male and military. “It was incredible serving with Peggy Whitson,” he said of the first female commander of the International Space Station, who recently broke the record for total days spent in space by any NASA astronaut. “A civilian woman in charge of Russian colonels and French generals represents a very different perspective than when everyone was a military test pilot.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.