From Touchdowns To Takeoff: Engineer-Athlete Soared To Space

Feb 7, 2015
Originally published on July 25, 2015 8:56 pm

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

You may recognize retired astronaut Leland Melvin from his famous 2009 NASA portrait with his two dogs, Jake and Scout. Or maybe you've seen him on the Lifetime channel hosting Child Genius.

But his first claim to fame wasn't in space or on screen — it was on the field. Melvin, who is part athlete and part engineer, was drafted in the NFL in 1986.

He was signed to the Dallas Cowboys the same year he enrolled at the University of Virginia, studying materials science and engineering.

"They videotaped the courses and mailed them to me in Dallas," Melvin says. "So by day, I'm catching balls for America's team and at night, I'm watching materials science and engineering courses in a master's program."

But when Melvin suffered a severe hamstring injury during practice, his NFL career was over.

So he fell back to a career in science. He says he heard that NASA was looking for astronauts. With his athletic background and engineering experience, he thought he might be perfect for the job.

"So I applied the next selection and I got in," Melvin says. "It was pretty incredible."

Melvin went through the rigorous series of training sessions, including time at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a 6-million-gallon pool used for spacewalk training.

"We have the International Space Station and Space Shuttle submerged underneath 30 feet of water so that you can actually be floating like you're in space," he says. "We're in this white suit looking like a Michelin Man, they lower you down in the water and one of the things they forgot to put in my helmet was this little pad on your neck ring."

Melvin says that little pad allows you to press your nose against it so you can clear your ears as you go down into the water.

"I was straining to clear [my ears] and I tell the test director, who's in the control center, to turn the volume up in the headset," Melvin says. "I could not hear a thing. All I heard was static and white noise."

They immediately stopped the exercise and Melvin was pulled out of the water.

"There was blood coming out of my ear and they rushed me to the emergency room," he says. "They did surgery, they looked around, they couldn't find anything and being an astronaut, you need your hearing. If something happens and they can't explain why it happened, they won't let you fly in space."

Melvin's hearing slowly came back but he was still medically disqualified. So he traveled to Washington, D.C., to work in one of NASA's education programs instead.

"At that same time, February 1, 2003, we lost Space Shuttle Columbia," he says. "At that point we had to take care of our families."

Melvin consoled the parents of David Brown, one of the crew members on board who died that day.

"David's father said to me ... 'My son is gone, there's nothing you can do to bring him back, but the biggest tragedy would be if we don't continue to fly in space to carry on their legacy.' "

Melvin says that really stuck with him. He wanted to do his part.

As he flew across the country attending memorial services, Melvin says the chief flight surgeon was watching him closely, assessing his ear injury.

"He's watching me clear my ears and go up and down in the airplane and he calls me in his office and says, 'Leland, I'm going to sign a waiver for you to fly in space,' " he says. "That was one of my big breaks."

Melvin's first mission was in February of 2008 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis.

"We're looking at each other, we're pointing to the books and things and we're pointing to the computers and we have these huge smiles on our faces," he says. "Just like, 'Yeah, we're about to go to space!' "

The countdown began.

"The three main engines light, that's when the solid rocket boosters ignite," Melvin says. "It was this incredible surge of force and sound and your head is starting to shake."

The shuttle roared into the sky.

"I had a mirror on my wrist and I could look out the overhead window and see where the plume connected back to the ground. About three miles from where that plume was, was where my family was sitting," he says. "And it made this connection with me that they were with us."

Just 8 1/2 minutes later, the crew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis made it into space.

"We're floating and the things that you dropped are now floating around you," Melvin says. "Seeing this blue marble below us with no borders as we go around the planet every 90 minutes at 17,500 miles per hour."

"Looking at places where there's unrest and war and we're working together as one team to help advance our civilization — that's just an incredible, incredible moment for me."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Now, for the latest installment of our series My Big Break about career triumphs big and small. Retired astronaut Leland Melvin is part athlete, part engineer. He was signed to the Dallas Cowboys the same year he enrolled at the University of Virginia, studying materials science and engineering.

LELAND MELVIN: And so they videotaped the courses and mailed them to me in Dallas. So by day, I'm catching balls for America's team and at night, I'm watching materials science and engineering courses in a master's program, like, oh my goodness.

RATH: But an injury during practice ended Melvin's NFL career.

MELVIN: Then a friend of mine told me - he said Leland, NASA's looking for astronauts. And you'd be a great astronaut - your football background, your material sciences and engineering. He handed me an application. I looked at the application, and I said OK.

So I apply at the next selection and I got in. It was pretty incredible - went through the series of training sessions and one of which was in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where we have the International Space Station and Space Shuttle submerged underneath, you know, 30 feet of water so that you can actually be floating like you're in space. We're in this white suit looking like a Michelin Man. They lower you down in the water, and one of the things that they forgot to put on my helmet was this little pad on your neck ring. So if you're the kind of person that needs to squeeze your nose to clear your ears, which I am, this little pad would allow you to press your nose against it so you could clear your ears as you go down in the water column. And mine wasn't in there, so I was straining to clear. And I tell the test director, who's in the control center - I tell him to turn the volume up in the headset. I could not hear a thing. All I heard was static and white noise.

They took me out of the water. There was blood coming out of my ear and they rushed me to the emergency room. They did surgery. They looked around. They couldn't find anything. And, you know, being an astronaut, you need your hearing. And if something happens and they can't explain why it happened, they won't let you fly in space. My hearing slowly came back, but I was medically disqualified still to fly, because they didn't know why it happened. And then I went to Washington to work in education. And at that same time, Feb. 1, 2003, we lost Space Shuttle Columbia.

At that point, we had to take care of our families. And I was there to help console the parents of David Brown, who lived outside of Washington. And on the night of the accident, David's father said to me - this was another - this was kind of a transformational moment in my life because he said to me - he said my son is gone. There's nothing you can do to bring him back, but the biggest tragedy would be if we don't continue to fly in space to carry on their legacy.

And then as we fly around the country to different memorial services, the chief flight surgeon is sitting beside me taking notes. He's watching me clear my ears and go up and down on the airplane. And he calls me in his office and he says Leland, I'm going to sign a waiver for you to fly in space. That was one of my big breaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Advisors, initiate O2 flow. One minute and counting...

MELVIN: Space Shuttle Atlantis was our first mission. And we're looking at each other, we're pointing to the books and things, and we're pointing to the computers. And we had these huge smiles on our faces, you know, just like, yeah, we're about to go to space.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Activated. T-Minus 10...

MELVIN: The three main engines light. That's when the silent rocket boosters ignite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Main engine ignition - four, three, two, one, zero and liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis as Columbus sets sail on a voyage of science to the space station.

MELVIN: It was this incredible surge of force and sound and your head is starting to shake, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roger, roll Atlantis.

MELVIN: I had a mirror on my wrist. And I could look out the overhead window and see where the plume connected back to the ground. About three miles from where that plume was was where my family was sitting. And it made this connection with me that they were with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Atlantis, go at (unintelligible).

MELVIN: And eight and a half minutes later, we're now in space and we're floating and the things that you dropped are now floating around you and seeing this blue marble below us with no borders. As we go around the planet every 90 minutes at 17,500 miles per hour looking at places where there's unrest and war, and we're working together as one team to help advance our civilization. It was just an incredible, incredible moment for me.

RATH: Leland Melvin launched into space a second time in 2009 before he was appointed Head of NASA Education. He's also the host of "Child Genius," which airs Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. on Lifetime. You don't have to be an astronaut to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.