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Leland Melvin: From the NFL to NASA
“One day in 1998 I was riding on the back on the fire truck during a local parade. The father of two small young black boys turned the kids so they could see me, a black astronaut and I saw their faces light up, it was a great feeling.” Leland Melvin, NASA
When you talk with Leland Melvin you don’t immediately feel you are talking to a man who has made history. You might even miss that he was a 1986 NFL draft pick by the Detroit Lions because his relaxed vibe reflects his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. But make no mistake; Leland Melvin is an American hero.
It just so happens that he’s been seen on reality TV shows like The Dog Whisperer and Top Chef, worked with singer Mary J. Blige and her Foundation, talked music with legend Quincy Jones after taking the icons music in space, is an avid photographer, and is a NASA Astronaut.
Mr. Melvin came to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Langley Research Center in 1989. He joined the astronaut corps in 1998 and has served as a mission specialist on two space shuttle missions: STS-122 in 2008 and STS-129 in 2009. In 2008, he operated the shuttle’s robotic arm. Collectively, logging more than 565 hours and nearly 10 million miles in space. Talk about frequent flyer miles, he is now Associate Administrator for Education at NASA. That means he doing his best to change student perception about NASA, inspire and motivate students to consider math and science professions. Referring to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program, he says, “We need people to replace me. We need to jumpstart interest in space program.” In fact, a federal initiative is looking at putting broadband into the housing projects to encourage parents to support kids to become scientists and engineers. Because parents don’t have to be a scientist to raise one.
“People generally think everyone at NASA is a rocket scientist but we have opportunities for everyone. There are nutritionists who work with nutrition and reconstituting food in micro-gravity situations. There are doctors, lawyers, and many other good jobs.”
But a career at NASA wasn’t always the plan for Leland Melvin. After injuries sidelined his NFL football career, Melvin returned to academia and earned his master’s degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Not one to pine over what might’ve been, he says, “Everything is done for a reason…I feel what I do now is a calling. I use my experiences to teach other people,” giving credit to his parents (both respected teachers) and the support of his sister.
Talking about personal sacrifices in order to have the accomplished career he has, Melvin admits to not having a family of his own and spending a good deal of time away from his parents and sister. Notably, he says the sacrifices have been worth it. NASA has seen many changes since Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African American to go into space. Most recently, personnel changes at the highest levels at NASA.
In May 2009, President Barack Obama announced the nomination of Charles Bolden as NASA Administrator. He received Senate confirmation in July 2009. He is the first African American to head the agency on a permanent basis. I asked Melvin about this and other “breakthroughs” recently. “We have people in jobs who historically have not had those opportunities.” When I speak to kids and they say I cannot be this nor do that. I say, “Why can’t you? Bolden is a role model for everyone not just African American children. You can do anything you put your mind to it, anything you believe.”
This is something Leland Melvin knows something about.