Preflight Interview: Leland D. Melvin, Mission Specialist
JSC2009-E-064923  -- Leland Melvin

Astronaut Leland Melvin, STS-129 mission specialist, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the Sonny Carter Training Facility near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-129 interview with Mission Specialist Leland Melvin. Leland, tell me about your hometown, the place that you consider your hometown and what it was like growing up there.

Okay. I was born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, and it was a small community in central Virginia, kind of in the foothills called the City of Seven Hills and grew up playing sports, football, basketball and tennis. My father was my football coach; [I] started playing football when I was about fourth grade or so. And they were both school teachers also, so they were very big on academics and I couldn’t get away with too much when I went to school when my parents knew all the teachers there. But it was a very solid community and I learned a lot from just growing up and in an informal sense also, not just in the school system but the libraries and the museums also lent themselves to an education as well.

Did you have a chance to see it from space on your last mission?

You know, we were flying over Virginia and we were flying in February and so it was a little cloudy most of the times when I tried to look back at Lynchburg but I did see kind of the state in general and I’m looking forward to this flight, getting up there and getting some shots of Lynchburg and my hometown.

How would you say that that place influenced the person you’ve become and the things you’ve accomplished, just your make up?

Well, Lynchburg is a great city. It’s a small city but it’s a lot of really good hard-working solid people and I think what we do in space is all about teamwork and it’s all about community. It’s not just a NASA community. It’s an international community working together and I think a lot of my training here has been just an extension of what I had back there working together with people to get the job done, so it’s a great little community.

You mentioned that you grew up in a family of educators, obviously education [is] a big part of your life. How would you characterize the value of education in your life?

Education, not just the formal education, is essential in everything that we do here at NASA especially, but in my life, I’ve had school teachers not just teach me about the reading, writing and arithmetic but the life lessons and things that you need to do to be a good citizen or just to be a good person working together in a community or working together in a team. So I value education very strongly and I know that my parents would definitely let me know that sports and all the other things that I did was fine, but the primary focus was education and I think we need to make sure that the kids today know that without an education it will be very difficult to succeed in a lot of areas in life.

Take us through the educational steps that you took after high school. Tell us what you did educationally.

I graduated from high school and went to the University of Richmond, went there to get a chemistry degree, but I was also on the football team there and I was on a football scholarship there. Then from there I went to the University of Virginia in Materials Science Engineering and I hadn’t really thought about, I thought about engineering but I hadn’t really thought about my path, in which direction I would go, so from chemistry to engineering, and I had a professor at the University of Richmond who kind of led me into that direction. He said, “Hey, this would be a good place for you to go” and it was a perfect fit. I went into the electrochemistry department so kind of an extension of chemistry along with engineering and from there I worked at NASA-Langley and then did some more graduate work at the University of Maryland in mechanical engineering and I didn’t finish that degree. We came back to NASA and continued to work there.

You didn’t initially set out to be an astronaut. You had your sights set on another career. Tell us about how the pursuit of that played out and how that eventually, down the road, led to a career here at NASA.

Okay. After graduating from college in 1986, I was drafted to play with the Detroit Lions in the eleventh round of the NFL College Draft and coming from a high school team that was a running team just playing college was a huge step for me but thinking to go on to the NFL was even a bigger thing and so I went to Detroit’s training camp. The second week in the training camp I pulled a hamstring muscle pretty bad so I was released from that team, bounced to the Cowboys for a couple of days throwing with Danny White, then ended up in Toronto with the Argonauts on a practice contract for two weeks. While I was there my agent had been negotiating with Dallas to bring me down to Dallas for the next season. And so I came home. I signed with Dallas and I’m sitting around waiting to go to training camp or mini-camp in March and now this is October. Well, come to find out that I was driving as a courier for my agent, just delivering packages, waiting to go play football, and a professor from the University of Richmond, while I was in the parking lot, came up to me and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m waiting to go play football.” He said, “Well, why don’t you go talk to this professor at the University of Virginia in Materials Science. I think that’s something you could maybe do now instead of delivering packages. You could maybe be a research assistant or something.” And so I went up there and I started working for him as a research scientist and then the January semester came around and he said, “Well, why don’t you enroll in the Master’s program at UVA?” I’m like, “Well, why? I’m going to play football in March.” He said, “Well, you should do it anyway.” So I listened and I did it and I started grad school, took two courses and when I left to go to Dallas in March, they videotaped the courses and mailed them to me in Dallas so by day I’m catching footballs with America’s team and by night I’m watching materials science engineering video courses and that was kind of a, I mean, that was the toughest time of my life ‘cause you’re trying to make the team but you’re also taking courses. And then, one day I went out with Danny White. We were getting ready to throw and I was stretching coming off this hamstring injury and, he says, “Well, let’s just throw a half speed out” and I said, “Okay” and then I see Tom Landry walking on the field and this half speed out now translates to a “go to the house” bomb and that’s when I reinjured my leg. That was pretty much the end of my professional football career. But I had already set that bit back at Virginia to just come back into their engineering program, the Material Science program. So I went back to Virginia and finished up my degree and then went to NASA-Langley and a friend of mine at Langley now, she kind of got me interested in Langley at a career fair and I went down there and I started working as a research scientist so it was kind of convoluted to get there, but after working at NASA for about eight years a buddy of mine, he said, “Hey, you’d be a great astronaut.” He’d been applying to the astronaut corps and I hadn’t really thought a lot about becoming an astronaut but even being at NASA, ‘cause NASA’s (Langley’s) more of a field center and not a lot of astronauts come through there, but Charlie Camarda, and John Young came by in a T-38 one day and I was giving them a talk on some stuff that I was doing in the materials engineering area and I got really excited. So I put in an application and applied to the corps and came down and interviewed and I got in. So you never know who’s going to get you excited or get you turned on to something and it was my buddy, who was an engineer there, who said, “Hey, you’d be a great astronaut” so it wasn’t a traditional path like a lot of my colleagues but all the things that I’d done up to that point had kind of gotten me ready, the teamwork, the education, all those things were kind of getting me honed in to apply and to become an astronaut and so here I am.

And what kind of time frame passed by from when you first applied to when you were actually selected?

I applied in 1997 for the ’98 class and so I got in in ’98.

So relatively short then?

It was relatively short.

Can you tell us about, I’m going to ask you a question that’s kind of similar scenarios. Tell us about where you were, what you were doing and your reaction when you got the call saying, “Hey, do you want to come work for NASA?” Tell us that story.

All right. I was working as the Program Manager for a fiber optic sensor program for the X-33. We were trying to develop sensors to go on the vehicle for measuring strain and temperature and chemical species and we had this deadline and we were working to try to make our first sensor. We were making these sensors. And so we had created, we had drawn this fiber. We had etched it with a laser. We had created this sensor and I was really happy and I had gone back to my office and I saw I had a message on my phone so I picked it up and I think it was Ken Cockrell who left a message saying “Call back down. We want to talk to you about something.” So I called him, got put on hold. The line got dropped and then I think the third time was the charm when I finally connected with him and he said, “Leland, you came down and interviewed. We think we want to bring you down to be a part of the 1998 astronaut class. Do you want to come down?” And I paused and I [said] “I want to come down.” And I said, “Yes” and I hung the phone up and started dancing in my office and jumping around and went downstairs and told the guys and it was just a very exciting day because we had made this first sensor and I had got into the astronaut office and that was just a wonderful day so…

Your first spaceflight was STS-122. Before that you actually got selected to that crew. Tell us the story about how that happened and what your reaction was there.

I remember, I was at home at the time and I got the phone call. I think I was on the phone with a friend of mine and I got the phone call from the chief of the office saying, “Leland, you are selected to be a crew member on STS-122” and I had actually put it on hold. And so when I took the call, I now started jumping around again, this jumping thing, jumping around the house and my dog was barking and was looking at me like I was crazy and then I clicked back over and was talking to my friend. So that was the first person who found out that I got into the corps and she was very excited and I was excited and I think I went to work after that and you’re not supposed to tell anyone yet and I didn’t tell anyone and we kind of started looking at each other, “Yeah you got on. You got on.” It was [a] very exciting time.

JSC2009-E-124968 -- Leland Melvin

Astronaut Leland Melvin, STS-129 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT) mock-up training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

What do you remember most about that first spaceflight? Obviously there’s a lot to remember but what things will stick in your mind forever?

I think the most memorable part of that flight was at the early stages. Flight Day 3, we had just docked to the station and that evening Peggy had invited, Peggy Whitson who was the Commander, first female Commander, invited us over for dinner on the station side and she said, “Okay, we’re going to have the meat. You guys bring the vegetables.” So we heated up the vegetables in the galley and brought ‘em over and we’re all floating over with our little bags of veggies and we get there and there’s music playing and we’re sitting around the table in the service module and people from all countries French, German, you know. We have Russian, African-American, Asian-American, you know. It was just a whole gamut of people and we’re all working together. They’re trying to figure out what’s the best can of meat to eat. Peggy was kind of giving us these different samples of Russian meats and, they were all very delicious and she said, “If you like them, I’ll give you a whole can”, you know. So that moment, it was like we were having this smorgasbord on station, but it was like I was in my mom’s home with family or friends coming over to talk about what happened in your day and, “Hey, do you want to try this?” and Dan’s up on the ceiling floating down and scooping up and heading back up and it was just one of the most amazing times to be flying around the Earth at seventeen thousand five hundred miles per hour, having a meal with friends and looking out over the Earth and thinking about, what is your family doing. Are they eating down there? Are they sitting around the table just like you are? So I think that was very memorable. Also after, I think it was after one of the EVAs, Rex, Dan and I were in the service module taking pictures and we came up over the Western Sahara. We were just screaming by and we’re shooting. The music’s on. We’re all talking and then we come up on the pyramids and I get a shot of the pyramids and just the time scale from the Western Sahara to the pyramids, going across the Nile, seeing this beautiful planet scream by the oceans, the colors of the sand, the reds, the browns, it’s just beautiful and after we finished shooting those pictures, there was a song on and it was Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and so Dan starts dancing and he says, “I’m an arm operator.” (laughter) So we’re sitting there, we’re shooting pictures, joking, laughing, just having a great time and it was just a very memorable moment on the flight.

That’s a great story. What’s it been like training for this mission with this crew? What observations have you made about the crew as a whole and then maybe even some individuals?

We have a crew of twos. That’s what I call it. We have two Marines, two Navy guys and two civilians, Bobby and I, and we had a chance, it was Mike and Butch and I went on to the USS Truman, on the aircraft carrier, and actually had a chance to just see that operational pace that goes on, on a ship like that and we went out and flew out on a COD, landed and had a wire arrest and it was just a phenomenal thing and just to see what these guys do on a day-to-day basis to actually keep our country safe. I just had so much more, I mean, I respect them but I have so much more respect for the things that they go through just to keep us as a country safe and their piloting skills, Butch is a crack pilot. Scorch, Mike and even Randy they’re all pilots that just have this finesse and this command, this operational bent. So it’s been great to get to learn from them, their experiences in the military and also Bobby. I mean, Bobby’s a Ph.D./M.D. who has these great hands and great skills and I’m the backup CMO with him so he’s been teaching me some of the finer points of suturing different things that, hopefully I won’t have to use the but if I do I’ve been trained by one of the best, so it’s just been a great team and we crack jokes and we just have a great time working together as a team.

When you’ve traveled around to the different centers for training and you’ve had a chance to meet some of the thousands of people who keep the crew safe, who ensure the success of the mission, what’s it been like when you’ve had a chance to meet these people?

It’s very humbling and very exciting. I mean, we get to ride the rocket and they’re helping keep us safe, making us safe, making us do the right thing when sometimes we might not do the right thing and I’m just honored to be part of such a wonderful team and I thank you now, I’m just giving a shout out right now, thank all of you for giving us this opportunity and I see it as a team. We’re all working together and everyone’s job is just as important as anyone else’s. It’s just one big team, one big family and when things go wrong we all suffer that together. When things go right, we all celebrate that together. So I just thank everyone. It’s very inspiring, especially when I see a lot of the, we have some new hires that we see and their enthusiasm and their excitement and they’re doing things that might seem mundane but they’re not mundane. They’re one part, one other part of the team, getting the job done and I just really see, I really, I really enjoy seeing that excitement and working with this great team.

STS-129, tell us what the key objectives of this mission are, just kind of in a nutshell.

Okay. We are taking, two ELCs, ExPRESS Logistics Carriers, which are going to take some spare [parts] for station and right now that’s one of our main objectives is to get those attached to station so that once the heavy lift capability of the shuttle goes away when it retires, we’ll have a lot of spare parts like control moment gyros, pumps, nitrogen tanks, ammonia tanks. We have a latching end effector spare for the Canadarm2. So there are lots of little pieces and parts that will keep the station going when shuttle’s retired. Another task is to do some EVAs and some outfitting of the station as well as bring Nicole Stott home. So that’s another primary objective is to bring Nicole, who went up on STS-128.

As a Mission Specialist on the flight, tell us about some of the key activities that you will primarily be involved with.

Okay. On launch I’m going to be Mission Specialist 1 on the flight deck helping us get to orbit safely. And on Flight Day 2 we’re going to be doing the inspections, the port and starboard and nose cap surveys. I’ll be part of that team for the robotics. I’m the Crew Medical Officer backup for Bobby if he needs me as well as in charge of the PGSCs, all the computers on board so I’m making sure they’re all connected and working properly. And then on EVA 1 and 2 we’re going to be doing the support for those EVAs with Mike and Bobby and then Comrade and Bobby, or Randy, we call him “Comrade.” It goes back. So doing EVA support, flying the robotic arm so Butch Wilmore and I will be going back and forth flying that, helping install the ELC 1 and the ELC 2 and doing robotic support also. So on coming home I’ll be Mission Specialist 2 helping coordinate us getting down to the ground safely.

After launching and making it to orbit you and your crew will transform Atlantis into an orbiter for its stay in space. You configure systems. Then on Flight day 2, as you mentioned, there will be an inspection of the shuttle’s exterior. Walk us through what you’ll do and how that process goes.

Okay. Flight day 2, Butch Wilmore, myself and Randy will grapple the OBSS, the boom system that has two sensor packages on the end of it. We’ll grapple that, take it out of the bay and survey the leading edges of the orbiter, looking for damage, if there’s been any impacts, things that have come off the tank or some spare debris, or something has hit something, we can take a look at it with the sensor packages and try to determine if it’s something that is kind of benign or something worth fixing with an EVA. And so we’ll survey the port wing, the starboard wing and the nose cap and then make sure that everything’s safe.

And after the inspection of the shuttle’s tiles, tell us about what other activities you’ll be involved with in preparation for the next day’s activities.

Okay, so on Flight Day 2 after the inspections, Randy and I will go through a series of checks for the rendezvous tools so we have a laser system. There’s something we call a TCS which points up to the station to give you range and range rate information, so we’ll go through and check all these things out to make sure that the hardware and software will be ready for docking on Flight Day 3. Also we have to make sure that the orbiter ring can be extended so when we dock we can actually kind of soft dock to the station and everything come down together so it’s a series of checkouts that we do to make sure that everything will be ready for docking and rendezvous.

Flight Day 3 you will eventually have the station in your sights and start going through the process of closing the gap between the two spacecraft which will eventually lead to docking. Talk us through what you’ll be doing for the rendezvous and docking stages of the flight.

Okay. I’ll work with Butch Wilmore and the Commander, Charlie Hobaugh, we call him ‘Scorch’, making sure that all the tools that we use for getting the range and the range rate data get to them in a timely manner and there are basically computer programs that we manipulate and configure to get that data to them and so I’ll be working those computers. I’ll also be helping and backing up with the procedures with the burns and making sure that the burns go on time so with Butch and Scorch. Also ‘Comrade’ or Randy, Randy Bresnik is, we call him ‘Comrade’. Randy will be shooting the laser inputs to mark station and give us this range and range rate data also so we’ll be using that information again with these computers. And then once we get to the docking phase, Randy and I will have to do something called the APDS, Androgynous Peripheral Docking System. It’s a Russian system that we all dock together, but we’ll set that up and have that ready to go and then once we actually dock to the station, we’ll go through a series of checks and we’ll have to extend the rings out and pull the hooks in and do a lot of things to make sure that we’re kind of buttoned down together really tightly so that we can all move together as one unit. So Randy and I will work that right after we get docked to the station.

JSC2009-E-118572 -- Leland Melvin

Astronauts Barry Wilmore (left), STS-129 pilot; and Leland Melvin, mission specialist, use the virtual reality lab in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center to train for some of their duties aboard the space shuttle and space station. This type of computer interface, paired with virtual reality training hardware and software, helps to prepare the entire team for dealing with space station elements. Photo Credit: NASA

Three EVAs on this mission [are] scheduled. The first one will be Mike Foreman and Bobby Satcher outside. Talk us through what they’re scheduled to do and what your role is for EVA 1.

Okay. For EVA 1 Bobby will be riding the arm so Butch Wilmore and I will be moving the arm over to the truss where Bobby will put his APFR on his foot plate, get it and then we’ll take him down to the payload bay where we will get him close to this antenna stanchion, this SASA antenna and he’ll grab it and then we’ll take him over top of the truss to the Z-1 location where we’re going to install this stanchion. And so Bobby will be going for a very long and nice deep space ride. We’ll be looking out, and hopefully we’ll get some really good pictures because he’ll be riding for a while. And then after that he’s going to grab a tool bag off the airlock, off of one of the tanks on the airlock and then we’ll take him back to the truss where he’ll get out from there. No, before that, I’m sorry, he’ll use that bag to lube up the POAs, like the end effector or the end of the arm, but it’s on the mobile base system. It’s like on the mobile transporter. So it has snare wires in there that he’ll have to lube with basically some grease and then we’ll take him over to the JEM robotic arm and do the same thing. He’ll lube that up and then we’ll take him back to the truss and he’ll get out of the arm there. So those are the main arm points that we’ll be working with Bobby on that EVA.

On the day of the second EVA, [it will] be kind of like a double feature. There’s going to be, the EVA guys will be out there doing some stuff but there’s also scheduled to be kind of like a separate robotics show. Talk us through what’s going to happen robotically during that EVA.

Robotically we’re going to have to grapple and unberth ELC 2 and then that will be presented again to the station arm and I think myself and Jeff Williams will grapple the ELC 2 and then move that up to install it on the port truss, P-3. And so we’ll install it there and then, I think Nicole Stott will help me with the installation and the actual cinching it down to the station so that the robotic arm can detach from it and then we’ll go into a double grapple position where the arm will kind of fold back on itself and grapple onto the mobile base where it’ll be translated to the next position for use later, for EVA 3. So that’s the plan for EVA 2 while the robotics is going on.

Walk us through what you’ll be doing then for the subsequent EVA, EVA 3.

Okay. On EVA 3 Butch and I will be using the big arm again, Canadarm2 to grapple a HPG, a High Pressure Gas tank and so Bobby and Comrade will actually flip this tank down and present it to us, present the grapple fixture of the pin that we grapple on to us. We’ll fly in and they have it tethered to themselves. We’ll fly in. We’ll grapple. They’ll untether it and give us a go to release it or take it away. So we’ll take that and attach it actually over near the airlock. So this tank will then go on the airlock. We’ll get it close. We’ll get it to a soft dock position and then Bobby and Comrade will cinch it down tight and then we’ll ungrapple and move away. So that’s the interaction with the EVA for the robotics while on EVA 3.

If mission managers [decide] that they want to take a closer look at the shuttle’s exterior you’ll do what’s called a focused inspection at some point. Tell me about that process. It may or may not happen, but if you have to do [it], tell me how it will get done.

Okay. If we have to do a focused inspection and we had one actually on 122 where we had a little tuft of foam that popped up on the OMS pod so what we’ll do is we’ll grapple the boom. In this case, since we’re on station the boom’s already put away. Bobby and I think Scorch will grapple the boom, take it out of the bay and with the station arm present it to the shuttle arm because of the clearance due to the stack. So they’ll present it. We’ll grapple it and then we’ll go to this, the area of interest is what they call it, for the focused inspection and so there may be multiple points or one point, but we’ll be given, procedures will be sent up to us and we’ll have a procedure review. We’ll go over them ‘cause this will be a place we probably haven’t looked at before and we’ll go and use the sensor systems to scan that area and then go back through the whole series of putting the boom away with the station arm. So pretty much similar to the surveys but it’s only one or two spots that we’re interested in looking at for the focused inspection.

Late in the mission schedule you’ll start packing for your trip back home. You’ll say farewell to the people on station, close the hatches between the two craft and spend the night in the shuttle. Then the next day you’re scheduled to undock from station. Tell us what you’re scheduled to do for undocking.

Okay. For undocking, similar to docking, we’re going to use those same type of tools to back away so I’ll be on the flight deck working with, now Butch Wilmore will be flying the shuttle around during the fly-around if we do that and I’ll be helping him. We’ll get that range and range rating data to him for making sure we circle around and get away from the station. And then, let’s see after that undocking, then we’ll start working on another late inspection so that’s again similar to the inspection we did initially but just to make sure that maybe no micrometeoroid debris has hit the shuttle or nothing’s hit the shuttle and that we’re safe to come home. And the other thing, want to make sure we do right before we undock, I’m in charge of transfer, to make sure that Nicole is on the right side of the hatch and on STS-122 there was a line in the procedures, it said, “LEO to station” and it was in capital letters, L-E-O. I’m thinking, “LEO, Low Earth Orbit, what is this?” And it was for Leo Eyharts to be transferred over. I was sitting there scratching my head for the longest time trying to figure out, “What is this LEO thing?” So at least Nicole will be enough letters to know.

Yeah that’s good. They don’t leave anything to chance. That’s good.

What are you most looking forward to seeing on your next visit to station? I mean, it’s changed a bit since your last visit. What are you most looking forward to?

I think I’ve looked at pictures of station in its current configuration. When we were there we had installed Columbus and now we have the JEM. We have more solar arrays, so much more expansive vehicle, just to float from module to module and just to be a part of this great team that we work with and see the entire station. I think doing the rendezvous and coming up to the station is going to be magnificent to just see all these orange panels not flapping in the breeze but just sitting there radiating the sun and just seeing the magnificence of this breathing station.

This is a wacky question but I’m going to throw it out there anyway. It’s kind of a bit of serendipity that they equate the length of the station to the size of a football field and you having that background. Has that ever occurred to you?

Well everyone that goes to station tries to do the long down and out - how far can I go through all the modules without touching anything? And when you get over to the, if you get close to the FGB you have a kind of a little curve right there so people say that they can actually fish their body through there without touching and make it from one end of station to the other. I haven’t seen that happen yet, but I’m going to try to do that.

How do you think station’s importance will be characterized in the history books that are written some time from now when we, not us ‘cause we probably won’t be here, but humankind actually travels back and forth between worlds based maybe in part on what’s being learned on space station right now. How will the history books portray space station, this era of space station and the start of all of that you think?

I think when you look back in history and you look at grand projects that have been done by people this will be the showcase for that because it’s multinational. I mean, it’s being put together with people that at one point in time in history we were fighting against and now we have this world community working together to build something so beautiful, something so magnificent and we’re trying to do things to better humankind; the research, just the building process in itself, to go on and continue to explore. And I think when you look back from [a] hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now, we’ll say, “How there were budgetary constraints, were all kinds of things that happened, Columbia, all these things that could have been the poison pill to keep this from happening but we as an agency, we as a civilization persevered and still made this beautiful thing happen.” So I think it’s perseverance. It’s collective thinking, working together as a civilization to put something together and I think that’s been the most beautiful part of this is of course, like I said, when I got up there and I saw all these countries represented and all these people working together who at one time were warring, fighting against each other, it’s just amazing to see that.