The Man Behind the Arm
On his first spaceflight, NASA astronaut Leland Melvin will have a big job to do: attaching the European Space Agency's Columbus Laboratory to the International Space Station.
Melvin will not do the job alone. He is one of six crew members scheduled to launch on the STS-122 shuttle mission in early February 2008. The STS-122 crew includes commander Steve Frick, pilot Alan Poindexter, and mission specialists Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, and Hans Schlegel of the European Space Agency.
Melvin will operate the station's robotic arm that will move the Columbus Laboratory from the shuttle's payload bay to its position on the station.
Melvin will use the arm also to support spacewalkers Love, Walheim and Schlegel as they install Columbus and complete other tasks.
"It's a really big accomplishment for our partners in getting (Columbus) ready and up to our space station, and I'm proud to help install it with the robotic arm," Melvin said.
Melvin has worked for NASA since 1989 but has been an astronaut only half of that time. He was selected to the astronaut corps in 1998. Before that, he conducted research at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He worked in Langley's Non-Destructive Evaluation Sciences Branch, helping develop fiber-optic sensors designed to check for hydrogen leaks in NASA's space shuttle and the X-33 research vehicle.
Melvin said his position developing fiber-optic sensors required very delicate work and precision. "That same kind of precision is used when using the robotic arm," he said.
Melvin attributes some of his skill at the robotic arm to his deftness as a football player in college and as a snowboarder. He said playing video games also was good training for the kind of work involved in controlling the robotic arm.
"It was just something that I really enjoyed, and I like tinkering and doing things with my hands, and this is one way that I can manipulate something with my hands in orbit," he said.
Before being assigned a mission, Melvin was co-manager of NASA's Educator Astronaut selection project. The project recruited K-12 educators to become permanent members of the astronaut corps to perform all the jobs and responsibilities of a mission specialist astronaut.
To support the project, Melvin engaged thousands of students and teachers in the excitement of space exploration, and inspired students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. His efforts furthered NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in those disciplines.
Melvin, whose parents are both educators, said he agreed to be involved in the project because giving back to students is important. "It was something that I felt was a good fit since I had seen the influence from my parents. My parents were my role models," he said.
He said the key for today's students who want to be the astronauts returning to the moon or going to Mars is to study a science discipline that they enjoy. "Learn about it and talk to people who are doing it," he said. "... Learn everything you can and see if it's something you really want to do. You'll have to go to school and train and study. Do it because it's something that you are passionate about. If it's something you want to do, then really go for it."
Melvin chose chemistry. He went to the University of Richmond on a football scholarship and earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry. He was drafted into the NFL, but an injury prevented him from playing. He took a job as a research assistant at the University of Virginia to bide time until training camp and took classes towards a master's degree while he was there. When he injured himself again and his football career ended, he had his education to fall back on. He finished his master's degree in materials science and landed the job at Langley.
A friend of Melvin’s who also worked at NASA applied to the astronaut corps in 1996. The friend suggested Melvin apply because NASA was in need of material science applicants. He didn't apply for the 1996 class, but applied at the next opportunity for the class of 1998. "It was an amazing process, just seeing all the degrees, backgrounds and all the people who wanted to be astronauts. ... After that I said 'Wow, that's a cool job that I want to do.'"
"As a child I really liked math, science and sports. I continued to enjoy these childhood loves throughout high school, college and graduate school, which led me to this opportunity," Melvin said. "All the things I did weren't specialized to get me here, but all of it helped me reach this goal.
"Lots of times we don't really know exactly what we want to do, but we may like math or biology or something else, and so you do those things that you love and then the right job will come to you, maybe with those things you love doing. And that's how it happened to me. It would be a great disservice to do something you don't enjoy doing in trying to become an astronaut."
Because he's been training for spaceflight for nine years and he's seen a lot of missions and training in that time, Melvin said he's prepared, at least from a theoretical standpoint, for what's going to happen.
"It's like game day when you're sitting in the locker room, and it's five minutes, three minutes, two minutes, and everyone is screaming and yelling. You try to get into the zone."
Melvin is also the crew medical officer on the flight, making him responsible for any medical duties needed during the mission. In addition to delivering the Columbus Laboratory, the mission will take European Space Agency astronaut Leopold Eyharts to the International Space Station and bring home astronaut Daniel Tani.
Leland Melvin Bio
Astronaut by Chemistry
European Columbus Laboratory
NASA Education Web Site
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services