Former NASA astronaut and current NASA Education chief Leland Melvin outlines highlights of his second space shuttle mission, STS-129, in November 2009 before an appreciative group of students during a visit to Shadow Hills Intermediate School in Palmdale Dec. 8. (NASA / Tom Tschida) › View video
As part of a whirlwind three-day visit to the three NASA field centers in California, NASA's Associate Administrator for Education and former astronaut Leland Melvin encouraged students at a middle school in Palmdale to "believe in yourself. Do what it takes to be successful."
Melvin brought his message of motivation to about 250 students and several local dignitaries at Shadow Hills Intermediate School during a morning assembly in the school's cafeteria Dec. 8. His visit to the school was part of his daylong visit to Palmdale that included discussions with NASA Dryden Office of Education staff at the AERO Institute in downtown Palmdale and a tour of the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility adjacent to Air Force Plant 42.
"Whatever your dream…if you work at it, if you believe in it, if you put your mind to it, you can do it," said the veteran of two space shuttle missions, STS-122 in February 2008 and STS-129 in November 2009.
Becoming a NASA astronaut wasn't in his career plan when he was in school – Melvin was far more interested in playing sports, especially football, in which he excelled. He said being creative inspired him to design and build his own skateboard when he was in middle school - "That's what engineers do," he added.
An interest in chemistry sparked by his mother's purchase of a chemistry set for him during his middle-school years led him eventually to earn a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in materials science, academic fields that would serve him well when his initial career after college as a professional football player with the National Football League's Detroit Lions was cut short by injuries.
Time Warner Cable TV News reporter Suzi Theodory interviews NASA education chief and former astronaut Leland Melvin following his presentation to students at Shadow Hills Intermediate School in Palmdale Dec. 8, 2010. (NASA /Tom Tschida) Melvin's academic credentials led to a job as an aerospace research engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center in 1989, and nine years later he was accepted into the astronaut corps.
"I didn't know that I wanted to become an astronaut until later in life," said Melvin, now 47.
Melvin responded to a number of questions posed by the honors students and those in the Advancement Via Individual Determination program at Shadow Hills who were selected to attend the assembly, including the usual queries about how astronauts eat and relieve themselves when in the weightless environment of space. His lengthy and detailed response could be summed up with "very carefully…things float in space."
Melvin challenged his listeners to focus on what they can do, and not to be dissuaded by those who say they can't.
"The problem with 'can't' is the apostrophe and the 'T,' and that you can remove," Melvin told the students.
"Anything you dream you can do," he added. "Have a plan for your life. Get the tools in your head - the reading, math and science. You need to have the right tools."
"Live your dream as an average guy - be dedicated, eat your green beans, respect your teachers and parents.
"If I can do it, you can do it."
Seventh-grade students Diamond Luong and Jacqueline Ibarra chat with former NASA space shuttle astronaut and NASA's current Associate Administrator for Education Leland Melvin following his presentation at Shadow Hills Intermediate School in Palmdale Dec. 8. (NASA /Tom Tschida) Melvin made similar visits to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Flintridge-La Canada Dec. 9 and Dec. 10 to NASA's Ames Research Center near San Jose in Northern California. During each of his visits to NASA field centers around the country, Melvin includes a visit to a nearby middle school to encourage students to pursue studies and careers in the so-called STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Melvin was appointed to NASA's senior education position in October 2010. He is responsible for developing and implementing agency education programs that strengthen student involvement and public awareness about NASA's scientific goals and missions. While still in the astronaut corps, Melvin co-managed the former Educator Astronaut Program in 2003 that recruited teachers to become fully trained astronauts in an effort to connect space exploration with students across the country.