December 7, 2020

From Athlete to Astronaut

Posted by Shane Hanlon

Leland Melvin. Credit: NASA

Leland Melvin’s scientific career began during his childhood in Lynchburg, Virginia, when he created a fantastic explosion in his living room with an at-home chemistry set. Little did Leland or his family know at the time that he would become both a professional athlete and a NASA astronaut, flying two missions to the International Space Station.

In this special episode of AGU’s podcast Third Pod from the Sun, Leland recounts his circuitous journey from scientist to NFL wide receiver to astronaut. His inspirational story of overcoming odds, injuries and setbacks shows how anyone can achieve the impossible with enough determination and discipline.

This episode was produced by Lauren Lipuma and Shane Hanlon and mixed by Lauren Lipuma.

Transcript:

Shane (00:04): Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in a manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Lauren (00:14): And I’m Lauren Lipuma.

Shane (00:15): And this is Third Pod from the Sun. All right. Well, hi, Lauren.

Lauren (00:23): Hi, Shane.

Shane (00:24): It’s nice to just be the two of us here for today.

Lauren (00:28): I know. We haven’t done an episode just the two of us in a long time.

Shane (00:31): Yeah, yeah. Well, and folks who actually listen to this on the regular will probably realize that we didn’t have a cold open, either, but there’s a reason for that. So we just want to get straight into it. We have a special treat today. We talked with Leland Melvin, who is a former astronaut, a former NASA astronaut, and a former professional football player, which is already quite the resume, who’s speaking at our AGU fall meeting this year, virtually, of course. Lauren and I spoke with him about this unusual life and career path that he had.

Lauren (01:08): Yeah, it’s so interesting. Leland is the only person ever to have been drafted into the NFL and who also flew in space as an astronaut. It’s pretty cool. The sad part, actually, is that Leland suffered some injuries after he was drafted, and he didn’t play in any regular season NFL games, but his athleticism and his experience playing football really contributed to his success at NASA when he became an astronaut.

Shane (01:34): Yeah, and so before he was an astronaut, he actually came to NASA as an engineer, but after some encouragement, he applied to be an astronaut and was accepted. So during a training exercise, actually, Leland lost his hearing, and he was actually medically disqualified to fly in space. But that did not dissuade him, and once his hearing returned, albeit partially, but he ended up flying two missions to the International Space Station.

Lauren (02:05): Yeah, it’s such a cool story. Leland is such an inspiring person. One kind of theme of his life that really stuck with me when we were talking to him was how he just kept going in the face of defeats or obstacles. It was really a tale of overcoming odds, and so I am so excited to share this with all of you, for all of you to hear his story. So here we go, and enjoy.

Leland (02:37): My name is Leland Melvin. I’m a former NASA astronaut and STEAM explorer. Oh, well, I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, and my mother, she always gave me things that would spark my curiosity. One of the things that she gave me was an age-inappropriate, non-OSHA-certified chemistry set. She said, “Leland, I want you to follow the instructions and have fun,” but I took the instructions and threw them over my shoulder and created this most incredible explosion in her living room. I burned a hole in her carpet. She had a hand in my development, and that’s where I got started with science.

Leland (03:18): Then with the mechanical engineering-type stuff was with my dad when he drove a bread truck. Well, he drove, yeah, this Merita Bread truck. He drove into the driveway, and he said … I thought I was going into the bread business. I was going to be delivering out the side of this truck and running around, but he said, “No, this is our camper.” I said, “No, Dad, I can read. It says, ‘Merita Bread and Rolls’ on the side of this thing.”

Leland (03:44): Over that summer, we built this thing out. We built bunk beds, mechanical engineering, Coleman stove with chemical engineering and then electrical wiring, electrical engineering. I was learning how to be an engineer and didn’t even know it, and we were having fun. It wasn’t until we painted the truck that I realized the vision my dad had for his family was to use this as an escape pod from this somewhat sometimes racist town in Lynchburg in the South, in Lynchburg, Virginia to nature of the Smokey Mountains, Virginia Beach, other places. I think that was where I got this curiosity for looking up at the night sky and the mountains and seeing nothing but pinpricks in velvet with stars shining through and just this curiosity about the world around me, even though I didn’t want to be an astronaut. At five years old, when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, I was like, “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to have a crew cut and be this white dude.” It was just I didn’t connect with it, and I-

Lauren (04:58): What did you think you wanted to do then, or did you know?

Leland (04:59): Yeah, I was always curious in building things, but my dad talked about this person down the street from where I grew up on Pier Street, and it was Arthur Ashe, the tennis player, trained down there.

Lauren (05:14): Oh, wow.

Leland (05:15): Arthur Ashe, as many of you know, he won every single tournament. He was intelligent. He played in college. He had great character, great stamina, athleticism, all these things that my dad talked about, his character and all the attributes that defined him, and he looked like me. So the backstory around that, though, is that this house where he was trained by this guy named Dr. Whirlwind Johnson, Dr. Johnson was the first African American doctor who integrated the hospital where I was born.

Lauren (05:52): Wow.

Leland (05:52): Before we moved to this house on Pier Street, we lived in Dr. Johnson’s apartments. So I was a little, small kid. I mean, I was born living in the man’s apartments who taught Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe how to play tennis. So the storied legacy of this street that had all these people, Chauncey Spencer, who helped grow the Tuskegee Airmen, he lived on that block also and then his mother, Anne Spencer, who was a well-renowned Harlem Renaissance poet. So this street had so much storied legacy, and then I was able to glean from these legendary people and then be able to find space from their commitment and sacrifice to allow all people to rise.

Lauren (06:44): Growing up, what kind of path did you think your life was going to take? I mean, you had all these amazing inspirations around you. I mean, where did you kind of see yourself going with it or going with science or athletics?

Leland (06:54): Yeah. I mean, I played football. I blew things up with chemistry. So I knew that I could be a science, because I’d already done it. I just needed some goggles and a white lab coat. My mom, she was a home economics teacher, so there was chemistry in preparation of food, and my dad was a language arts teacher. But I didn’t really know any … I guess my chemistry teacher in high school, she was a scientist, but I didn’t really know a lot of scientists and engineers. But I was always curious, and I always like building things and creating things. So that kind of led me down the path in college to being a chemistry major. So it was kind of this circuitous path, this journey of hard knock sometimes and discovery,

Leland (07:58): You were pursuing a very serious, scientific, course-heavy, intensive degree while also being a student athlete. Was that relatively unique? Did your teammates think you were misguided for doing that? What was that experience like?

Lauren (08:10): Yeah, that’s a good question. It wasn’t your typical dumb jock degree. When I signed the letter of intent to be an athlete at the University of Richmond, the first thing I had told the coach was that, “I want to major in chemistry. Can I major in chemistry and play football at this level?” He agreed to me that I could do both. So during the season, they were many times when I would have to miss practice, the hard practices, the Tuesday and Wednesday practice to go to chemistry lab. I may come out to practice for 15 minutes at the end and break everyone down. So he held up his end of the bargain, but a lot of coaches don’t allow their players … They to get them to go to a different class. But at a small university like Richmond, there weren’t that many lab classes. So you had to take that lab or you would have to take it the next year, and that would have pushed my schedule out for graduation.

Lauren (09:08): So I had a coach who believed in education first and then athletics second, and there were other football players. I know there has been more since, but Randy Kinsley was in biology. He’s a doctor now. We had a few other guys that were taking some of the sciences and things. But I know now that it seems like there are more student athletes at Richmond that are doing things. I think because of that legacy of setting that stage for, “Hey, this guy played football, and he was a chemistry major. Now he went to space,” [inaudible 00:09:41]. There’s a huge picture of me in my astronaut uniform with the football team. It’s one of the pictures that they see when they walk to the locker room. So I think just setting that tone, that bit in people’s minds that you can do both if you have the right support, the right access, and the right opportunity.

Lauren (10:06): So you got your chemistry degree, but you decided to play professional football. Tell us about that.

Leland (10:11): Well, I got drafted to the Detroit Lions in the 11th round of the 1986 college football draft. I get this phone call at 11 o’clock at night, and there’s this guy who says, “Hey, we’re going to draft you in the 11th round. Do you want to play for the Detroit Lions?” “Sure,” right? Who gets drafted to the Detroit Lions in the 11th round? So it was an opportunity, and I always look at opportunities as a way to learn new things. So I went to training camp, I came back, I graduated, and then I went to the full-up camp. I pulled a hamstring in training camp, and they cut me from the team. I started graduate school at the University of Virginia after that.

Leland (10:57): Really, I started as a research assistant in between the camps of Detroit and Dallas, and I was doing electrochemistry research. When January came around to the start of the master’s degree program, the professor said, “Hey, why don’t you enroll in the master’s program at University of Virginia in material science?” I’m like, “Well, you know I’m leaving in three months to go play for America’s team in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys.” He said, “Well, let’s do it anyway.”

Leland (11:25): So I enrolled and started taking two courses, math and material science and electrochemistry. When I left to go train with Dallas in March, this is the online learning. They videotaped the courses, VHS. Okay? These big tapes that they were mailing to me down in Valley Ranch in Dallas, and so by day, I’m catching footballs for America’s team. At night, I’m watching VHS videotapes. I had to watch, I think, 15 tapes before I took my final exams, and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

Lauren (11:58): Oh my God. Did you feel overwhelmed, or were you like, “This is awesome”?

Leland (12:05): It was, again, getting back to that balance between academics and athletics. I mean, this was at a whole ‘nother level, with their expectation that you’re there to play professional football. You’re not here to get a degree. But I think a lot of other guys, in the off season, they went to law school. They went to business school, and so there was this expectation that you could do other things while you were practicing. I got a chance to play in two preseason games with Detroit. I pulled a hamstring for the second time in Dallas, and so that was the end of my football career. But I went back to grad school and then what every former NFL player does. They go work for NASA, right?

Lauren (12:46): Just like all the rest of them. I mean, when you realized your football career was over, were you disappointed, or were you kind of ready for the next chapter? How were you kind of feeling about that?

Leland (12:56): Yeah, good question. I mean, once I got in, I wanted to play, but then I saw some of the other things that were going on and people getting injured, but then having no other options, so they were playing injured. They were hurt, people taking all kinds of painkiller, and just different scenarios for different people. Now with CTE and all the things that are happening, I think maybe … I wouldn’t have never got to space if I’d stayed in the NFL, probably. But I think this is what my journey was supposed to be, right? So I was probably disappointed for a couple days, but then I’d say, “Well, life goes on. Keep moving on and find something different.”

Shane (13:45): So what was that process like, at least in your mind, when you … So you were done with the Cowboys, and then you ended up going to NASA, but I’m just interested in how that shook out.

Leland (13:58): So the way it played out, I got cut from the Dallas Cowboys. We were training out in California, Thousand Oaks, California. I called my agent. He was going to try to find me another place, but then I was already in graduate school at UVA. So I just went back to school, finished my master’s degree, went to a career fair, and I was in Charlottesville for this career fair. I’m walking by the different booths, and I wanted to go work for DuPont or Dow Chemical. They had great positions, and I thought I would do that. They paid well. Then this woman comes up and grabs my arm. She’s standing at the NASA booth, and she says, “What’s your name?” I said, “Leland Melvin.” She says, “I’ve been looking for you. You’re going to work at NASA.”

Leland (14:44): I’m like, “No, I’m not. I’m not working with NASA.” So the career fair is winding down, and she grabs my arm. She’s like, “Come on. You’re going to help me take these books to my car.” So I’m talking to her about NASA, helping her break down her booth, and it’s just like, “What is going on here? I didn’t come here to work.” So her name is Rosa Webster. She was a physicist. She was there when Katherine Johnson was there. She was the woman who helped calculate trajectories to get John Glenn to space and to help me ride in the space shuttle, just all these incredible calculations that were depicted in the movie Hidden Figures.

Leland (15:28): She said, “You can get your PhD. We’ll pay for you to go back to school, get your PhD. You can work here. It’s a very collegial atmosphere. You can do research.” So I went down and interviewed at NASA and not thinking that I would do it, but I realized that this is a really interesting place, and the money was very different from working in the private sector. So I was thinking about the dollars, but then I thought about the opportunities to get my PhD. So I went and took the job in the nondestructive evaluation sciences branch. We were doing research to develop sensors to make strain and temperature and just different types of measurements on aerospace vehicles, so nondestructive testing or smart materials, smart structures.

Leland (16:21): I really enjoyed that, and then I went to work on my PhD at University of Maryland in mechanical engineering, which was a rapid departure from material science and chemistry. So to do that, I had to go to Old Dominion University, which was near NASA Langley Research Center. I took some introductory courses in mechanical engineering and some more mathematics courses to prepare me to go into that program.

Leland (16:57): For whatever reasons, during that program, I just didn’t feel like it was time for me to be there, doing that. So I spent a year at Maryland, taking these courses, and then I went back to NASA Langley. I became the program manager of this program called the X-33 Program. We were going to develop sensors to make measurements on these cryogenic tanks on this vehicle. I thought, “Wow, this is really exciting.” I was traveling around the country, working with all these teams of engineers and scientists from all over the country to build this vehicle.

Leland (17:32): Then as I was doing this work, people at NASA, at NASA Kennedy Space Center, they found out about these potential sensors that can make measurements for detecting hydrogen leaks or oxygen leaks on the space shuttle. So we did a project with them, and then my friend said, “Leland, you’d be a great astronaut.” He handed me an application. I looked at it, and I didn’t fill it out. I said, “I can’t be an astronaut. Come on. Whatever.” That same year, another friend of mine who worked on that same X-33 Program, Charlie Camarda, he filled the application out, and he got in. I said to myself, “Wait a minute. NASA let that knucklehead become an astronaut? Wait. Wait a minute. That guy?”

Leland (18:22): The thing that happened between that revelation of him getting in and me applying was that he flew a NASA T-38. It was a high-performance military training jet from Houston to NASA Langley. There’s an Air Force base beside Langley, NASA Langley, Langley Air Force Base. They landed there, and I went out to the plane and met them. The person that stepped out of the plane with him was John Young. John Young walked on the moon. So Charlie and John Young are over in the conference room, and I’m giving them a talk about the research I’m doing that can help the space shuttle. John Young falls asleep during the entire session. He wakes up, turns to Charlie, and says, “Charlie, let’s get back to Houston. I want to get back home.” But then he turns to me, and he says, “Leland Melvin, you’re doing some great research. Going to help us with the space shuttle program. Really proud of you. You should apply to become an astronaut.”

Lauren (19:29): Oh my God.

Leland (19:29): Oh my goodness. If John Young tells you to apply to become an astronaut, a man who walked on the moon, you know maybe you should do it. So I applied, and when I went down for the interview, John Young was on the selection committee. When I sat down in the seat to start the interview process, there were astronauts and administrators and people all around the table. I’m sitting there, and John Young starts with, “Guys, Leland Melvin, he’s worked at NASA Langley. He was an NFL football player. He’s got the right stuff. Listen to what he has to say. He’s a smart guy.” So that set the tone for my interview. That was my first application to become an astronaut, and I got in.

Leland (20:23): So I think everything had aligned just right. I left that PhD program to come back and work the vehicle health monitoring for the X-33. So I think sometimes as we go through our journey, we really have to listen to our inner self, and what are we doing? Why are we doing it? What is our purpose? I think that really resonated with me that making that decision … and NASA was paying my salary and paying for school. So many of my friends said, “What are you doing? You can get your degree and get paid. What is wrong with you?” But the timing wasn’t right, for whatever reason.

Leland (21:10): So as I talk to you guys and I talk to the rest of the people listening to this podcast, make sure that you’re being very intentional about the decisions that you make so that you’re doing what’s right for yourself, for your family, for the community, for the planet, for the universe, because it’s really important that you’re connected in a way that’s meaningful for you, not just doing something that other people feel you should do or your family wants you, “Oh, you should go make all this money and do this thing” or “You should do” … Do what you feel led to do.

Shane (22:01): How do you think your kind of athletic and professional athletic career affected your, I guess, ability to be an astronaut?

Leland (22:15): Yeah, I think any time you’re on a team, no matter what kind of team it is, you’re doing usually things greater than what your individual self can do. So whether it’s an academic team, whether it’s a research team, an engineering team, you learn how to coexist with other people to solve problems, whether it’s getting the win or building a space station. I think the other part of athleticism or training on a team like an athletic team is that you get this cadence of discipline and order and having to be in the right place at the right time, because that trajectory of the ball is going to be at that spot whether you’re there or not.

Leland (23:03): So the synchronicity of timing and pace and meter and that part, and then the part about being so tired that you want to quit and mentally tired, physically tired, that you’re ready to give up, but you keep going for whatever reason. All of those micro training sessions that build to the macro training game and win have to do with conditioning your body and your mind to work at a high-performing place, right?

Leland (23:42): So when I transitioned from athletics, and I’m always training and doing stuff with the Astronaut Corps. We’re always working as teams. We’re doing physical training, mental training. Spacewalk training is really hard. I mean, you’re in that suit for that long. The suit is pressurized. You’re having to fight against it. So your body and your mind are working in concert to build this thing underwater.

Leland (24:07): I think the injury part, getting back to your question, the injury makes you come through something that’s hard and painful. I had that in athletics with my hamstring, but I also had it when I was training to do my first space walk in this five million gallon pool called the neutral buoyancy laboratory. As I went down in the pool, I didn’t have a way to clear my ears, because they forgot to put this little plastic Valsalva pad that allows you to press your nose against it to clear your ears. That was missing from my helmet, and so on that training event, I went deaf. I lost all my hearing.

Leland (24:53): When I came out of the pool and took my helmet off, the flight surgeon touched my right ear. Blood was coming out of my ear. I couldn’t hear a thing. They did emergency surgery. They operated. They looked around. They couldn’t find anything. About three weeks later, my hearing came back in my right ear only in the speaking frequencies. So I was medically disqualified to fly in space. I had to go to a place of calm, of kind of rebuilding, of healing, and to this day, many of the doctors or the audiologists don’t understand how highly functioning my hearing is without hearing aids, because my left ear is pretty much gone. I mean, it’s down by probably a hundred DB, and my right ear, again, has only the speaking frequency. So triangulation is a big problem for me. If the smoke alarm goes off, I mean, I can’t tell exactly where it’s coming from, and they still let me fly in space, because I had a person who believed in me.

Leland (25:57): As my brain was kind of rewiring itself to hear again, I really believe that there are other transducers or sensors in my body that are being used for hearing versus touch or feel or temperature. I think I’m wired a little differently now so that I can exist in a hearing world or a world of noises that hearing protects you from. I think I’ve become a lot more aware, my visual acuity. I’m 56 years old, and I don’t wear glasses. I can still see. So the optometrist always says, “You can still read the chart, dude. What’s up with that?” But I guess the body has a way of adjusting itself to co-exist in a world that’s trying to get you.

Leland (26:56): When I went to space, there was a bit concern that without having this left ear being functional, how is he going to do the job? How is he going to perform with alarms going off and things happening and people trying to tell you, “Hey, slow down with the robotic arm. You’re going to run into something.” But I worked flawlessly because I trained, I trained, I trained, and we worked as a team. We took care of each other as a team to make sure that any deficiencies we had, we could fill in for each other. That’s exactly what happened.

Leland (27:31): When I saw this Columbus laboratory, it’s a $2 billion laboratory to the space station, it was the first time that I was going to be flying the real robotic arm in space. I’d only trained in a simulator, and everyone in Europe who was working this program depended on me to install this correctly or they would be without a job. No pressure, right? So I remember knowing that I had to be perfect, that everything just had to be right.

Leland (28:05): So when I trained on in the simulator, I would sometimes close my eyes and put six degrees of freedom of motion into the translational and rotational hand controllers and to see if I was close to getting where I needed to be so that if something did happen where I couldn’t hear something or see something, I knew that I could do this in that deliberate training and also having the physical training from my athletic stuff to having body control and spatially knowing where that laboratory is, but also where your body is with respect to the hand controller so that you can keep yourself oriented in a way so that you’re not going to make an error in the input that’s going to cause that to veer off or something.

Announcer (29:02): The astronauts for Space Shuttle Atlantis’s STS-122 mission flew into NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on November 18th, 2007 to participate in a launch dress rehearsal and other pre-launch activities. Known as the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, or TCDT, the Atlantis crew members had the chance to familiarize themselves with the equipment and payload they’ll be working with in space on this 24th shuttle mission to the International Space Station.

Speaker 4 (29:32): How are we doing today, Leland?

Leland (29:32): Pumpkin suit. It’s going pretty good.

Speaker 4 (29:32): All right. Ready?

Leland (29:32): Yep. Yeah, it feels nice and snug. I’m going to do some bailouts today. You can see it’s already hot in here in Houston. All right.

Lauren (30:02): What was it like when you went on that first trip?

Leland (30:07): Yeah, the first trip to space was probably one of the most … I’m not going to say most incredible things I’ve done, but one of the most incredible sensory overload moments, because you’re launching. You’re shaking. You’re hearing all the sound of the engines and the rattling and the rumbling. At two and a half minutes, the solid rocket boosters jettison, and the ride gets smoother. You’re pulling 3Gs going through your chest, so you’re laboring to breathe. Six and a half minutes later, it’s silent. You hear the ground talking to you. The things that you’ve dropped are now floating around you. You’re under your five point harness seatbelt, and you push yourself off with your back. Now you’re floating. These micro accelerations are moving you around in this cockpit of the space shuttle.

Leland (31:08): I had to float over to the window with a video camera and film the big orange external tank falling back down to earth to burn up. We filmed it because it was a witness plate for some foam had fallen off and maybe hit the tiles on the wing or the orbiter, because that’s what happened in 2003 to my friends who died on the Space Shuttle Colombia.

Leland (31:34): Launching, it was beautiful, it was momentous, but it was also a point of honoring the legacy of those people that had fallen. When my friends died in 2003, I went to console David Brown’s parents. He was one of the mission specialists, and his father said, “My son has gone. There’s nothing you can do to bring him back. The biggest tragedy would be if we don’t continue to fly in space to honor their legacy.” When I’m sitting in that rocket, I’m thinking about honoring the legacy. I’m not fearful. I’ve trained. We’ve got everything ready to go. Anything can happen. Something can happen with me leaving the studio and tripping on the curb and being checked out. But to do something honorable, to honor someone’s son and the crew, to help advance our civilization through exploration, kind of what AGU does with people all around the world, trying to make sure that we have a habitable planet and that we’ll have a habitable place for human beings to coexist.

Leland (32:38): So that’s why I didn’t have a fear, and I think the athletic training, the NFL, the highly performing teams working together to get the win is something that I was really excited to be in and on and proud to be representing the US to get to space with this international team of people working as a family.

Leland (33:06): Then other last thing, and so looking out the window after the tank fell down, I needed new definitions of the color blue to describe what I thought in the Caribbean. Azure, indigo, turquoise, navy, light blue. I mean, there were some other ones in there, but it was so many shades, so beautiful, and I think that’s one of the things that you’re not prepared for from a sensory standpoint when you get to space. It’s the beauty of our planet, and I think looking at the Amazon burning, the fires in the Amazon, looking at sediment coming down rivers from where places have been clear-cut and the soil is eroding and coming, it hurts your heart, but at the same time, it allows you to see it and then come back home with this new perspective and share it with others, like I’m sharing it with you and like I’m sharing it with the AGU conference. It’s really important that we have the perspective of the bigger picture and how we all work and fit together as one race, the human race, the family.

Leland (34:26): This year has been a really tough for so many people, but especially the kids that are having to learn from home and they’re wondering … There are some that didn’t have a graduation, a high school or college graduation or any of these things. So I think it’s really important for the future of humanity that we’re all striving to fix now with our technical disciplines and our teams. It’s so important to help inspire the next generation of explorers that comes from all zip codes or postal codes, because there’s talent in every postal code. We just have to make sure that that talent has access, opportunity, and belief. When you put that belief in someone, you never know that a skinny black kid from a somewhat racist town with hearing loss, with abuse, with all these things can one day fly in space and have a different perspective of all the universe. 

Shane (36:02): All right, folks. Well, that’s all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Lauren (36:04): Thank you so much to Leland for sharing his story with us.

Shane (36:07): This episode was produced by, well, us.

Lauren (36:12): AGU would love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review this podcast. You can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or always at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane (36:21): Thanks, all, and we’ll see you next time.