Student Features

Leland Melvin--Playing For NASA's Team
09.24.03
picture of astronaut Leland Melvin
Leland Melvin

Leland Melvin served as co-program manager of the Educator Astronaut program. The program, which began in January 2003, is part of NASA's effort to connect space exploration with the classroom and to inspire the next generation of explorers.

On becoming an astronaut:

Melvin did not intend to become an astronaut. He was working at NASA's Langley Research Center helping to develop fiber optic sensors. These are used to check for hydrogen leaks on NASA's space shuttle. A co-worker gave him an astronaut application and told him he thought Melvin would make a great astronaut. Melvin did not apply for that class. When the next round of astronauts were being chosen, Melvin's friend once again handed him an application. This time, Melvin applied and was accepted into the program in 1998.

On role models:

Deems and Grace Melvin have always been Melvin's inspiration. Both of his parents are educators. Melvin remembers being with his father and having former students approach them. Melvin realized his parents' importance to the community when students would say, "If it wasn't for your parents' influence, I don't know where I would be today." When these students brought their children to meet his parents, he realized that his parents didn't just have an impact on one person--they impacted families! Mr. and Mrs. Melvin guided their son in the same manner. His father taught him how to throw a ball and to believe he could do whatever he wanted to do. His mother read to him nightly. Among his favorite books were Curious George and The Little Engine That Could. Curious George reminded him of himself--curious to the point of getting into trouble sometimes. The Little Engine That Could gave Melvin the motto he uses to this day--"I think I can, I think I can."

On school:

Melvin's favorite academic subject was mathematics. He enjoyed playing football, basketball, and tennis. When asked how he mixed athletics with science, he said he used math and science to make him a better athlete. Melvin used the theories he learned in classes to control the spiral of the ball as he released it from his hand. He had a physics teacher in high school that related everything to sports. This kept Melvin interested in both! Melvin said that participating in sports has helped make him a better astronaut. "Sports are all about teamwork. You can't win a game if you can't work with your team. Working in the tight spaces of the Shuttle or the Station takes teamwork, as well. You can't be a good astronaut if you can't get along with the people around you."

On going into space:

"My hobby is photography. I can't wait to float over to the nearest window." He is looking forward to seeing the Earth as it really is. "Blues, greens, browns . . . no borders. One globe for everyone, thinking about everyone below working and playing. I think this is a way I can help promote peace in the world."

His advice to future explorers:

"Stay curious. Remember, no matter how big or small, no matter what your background, no matter who your parents are--you can succeed. So, eat your green beans and study hard."

Points of interest:

Leland Melvin was a skateboard enthusiast who not only skated, but also built the boards. He has been a tennis instructor and a pro football player. He played football at the University of Richmond, where he was inducted into the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division One Academic All American Hall of Fame. Melvin still holds Richmond's career records for receptions and receiving yards. He caught at least one pass in each of the 39 games he played. He was drafted by the National Football League's Detroit Lions in 1986 and later spent time with the Dallas Cowboys and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League before retiring due to injuries and beginning his NASA career. He now enjoys taking his motorcycle on cross-country rides. He has already been from Texas to Virginia and from Virginia to Colorado. He still feels like a kid and enjoys life with a youthful energy.

Biographical Data
Hometown: Lynchburg, Virginia
Born: February 15, 1964
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from University of Richmond, Richmond, Virginia; Master of Science degree in Materials Science Engineering, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
NASA experience: Fiber Optics Sensors Group, Langley Research Center. He is an astronaut currently assigned to the Education Department at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC.