Leland Melvin: Astronaut by Chemistry
Leland Melvin never meant to become an astronaut.
He remembers Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, but he doesn’t remember being especially impressed.
Image to right: Astronaut Leland Melvin, mission specialist. Image credit: NASA
“I think I was in my own little world of dirt club battles and cowboys and Indians,” he said. “I vaguely remember it, but it wasn’t something like, ‘Hey, I want to do that!’”
What did impress him was chemistry.
“My mom gave me a chemistry set when I was a kid, and I made this little concoction and blew up something on their rug,” Melvin said. “That was like, ‘Wow.’ So I became a chemistry major.”
Landing a job at NASA didn’t change his focus. And even when a friend in the office told Melvin he’d make a great astronaut and gave him an application, he blew it off.
“I said, ‘Yeah, right – whatever,’” he recalled. “Didn’t fill it out.”
But then that friend became an astronaut and awoke Melvin’s competitive spirit.
“The next year, I filled out the application,” he said, “thinking, well, if he could get in …”
It was the kind of serendipitous friendship that Melvin said he encountered at every fork in the road that led him to being an astronaut, starting with his high school football coach.
Melvin went to the University of Richmond on a football scholarship that almost slipped through his fingers – literally. He was a wide receiver on a team that ran the ball a lot, so from a stats standpoint, he didn’t look so great. And when a scout came to see if there might be more to him than what showed up on paper, Melvin almost blew it.
“He saw me drop a touchdown pass in the end zone,” Melvin said. “At our homecoming game. So he’s walking out of the stadium, and my coach, who believed in me, said, ‘Hey, Leland – catch the ball.’ Ran the same play again, and this time I caught the ball. We won the game.”
The scout heard the crowd screaming and turned around to see Melvin in the end zone.
“He said, ‘Wow – he came back from such a horrific failure in front of all his friends,’” Melvin said. “‘He was able to overcome that.’”
The resulting scholarship led to a chemistry degree and a place on the Detroit Lions. And there he might have stayed, if not for an injured hamstring and a chance meeting. But before the season even got going, Melvin was out of commission.
He was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, but it would be a year until he was able to play for them. So he took a courier job at his agent’s office to make some money in the meantime. One day, while delivering a package, Melvin bumped into the husband of one of his old professors.
“He said, ‘Hey – what are you doing?’” Melvin said. “I said, ‘I’m waiting to play football.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you talk to Glenn Stoner at the University of Virginia in the materials science department.’ And I said, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ And he said, ‘Just go do it.’ And I listened.”
Melvin went and talked with Stoner and ended up with a research job to keep him busy during the off season. Originally his reasoning was that he would make more money doing research than he would delivering packages – but when the next semester started, Melvin decided to enroll in graduate school, knowing that he’d have to leave for Dallas before it was over.
When the training season began, Melvin was playing football by day and taking videotaped materials science engineering graduate courses by night. It wasn’t easy, but when he injured his hamstring again before the season started, he was glad he’d done it.
“That was the end of my football career,” he said. “But I just went right back to grad school that fall and worked on my master’s.”
Image to left: Astronaut Leland Melvin talks to students in the cafeteria at Gainesville Elementary School, a NASA Explorer School in Gainesville, Ga. Image credit: NASA/KSC
Two years later he was hired by NASA Langley Research Center, which put him in position to be given the astronaut application. But again – it took the prompting of a benevolent acquaintance to keep Melvin on track. A recruiter flagged him over to a NASA booth at a job fair just as he was preparing to leave.
“She said, ‘What’s your name?’” Melvin said. “I told her. She said, ‘I’ve been looking for you.’ Come to find out, she was looking for me all day because the dean had said, ‘Leland is a good guy – you might want to look at him.’
“So the next week I had a job at NASA Langley.”
Melvin said he would never have thought to apply to NASA on his own, just like he wouldn’t have thought to work as a research assistant in the off season or apply to the astronaut program on his own.
“All these little things,” he said. “If I hadn’t bumped into the professor in the parking lot, it’s very possible that I would have had a different path. If I hadn’t been approached by this recruiter at the end of this career fair – who knows? But all these things lined up.”
And he’s glad he was paying attention when they did.
“Lots of times we don’t know what we want to do with our lives,” he said. “But other people have more of a vision or maybe know things that we don’t know. So always listen to others and don’t discard the information that you have. It could be your new plan.”
Johnson Space Center, Houston