Success Stories: Flying High

UPDATED: April 29, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 29, 2011

In 1987 fate intervened to cancel Leland Melvin’s shot at a career as a wide receiver in the National Football League.

The moment is etched indelibly in the former Richmond University star’s mind. As Tom Landry entered the Dallas Cowboys practice facility, quarterback Danny White changed a play at the line of scrimmage—“just letting coach see that he could air the ball out,” in Leland Melvin’s words—and as Melvin sprinted forward under the long pass, his hamstring blew out. He crumpled to earth in agony.

“That was the end of my football career,” Melvin says. He had taken that option as far as he could because he enjoyed football. Yet “football did not define me,” Melvin states flatly. “It was not my identity.”

Instead of wallowing in anguish, Melvin fell back to consider his options. In his postgraduate studies he “already had another job.” Rather than partying or making headlines for off-field escapades like some players, “I was going to football camp by day, studying my materials science by night,” he says. “They let me get to practice late, too.”

Today Melvin flies his routes overhead at 17,000 mph as a NASA mission specialist. He operated the remote manipulator arm on the recent space shuttle Atlantis mission STS-122—a critical role calling on every bit of the superlative hand-eye coordination that had previously taken Melvin so far in sports. He crowned his accomplishments by hauling the Columbus laboratory module from the payload bay of Atlantis, gingerly nudging Columbus into its position as the International Space Station’s latest addition.

Mid-Course Correction

After his injury, Melvin reached out to people he trusted. He undertook jobs with far less allure than that of a professional athlete to finance his education. During one stint making ends meet as a courier for his agent, Melvin encountered a mentor from his college days who urged him to consult a friend at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

That chance conversation resulted in a position at Langley, where Melvin met veteran astronaut John Young. Melvin found Young’s quiet self-assurance electrifying: a man who had gone farther and faster than almost anyone on the planet, but instead of doing end-zone dances, was humble and focused. It made an impression.

Melvin is unabashedly open on the subject of learning from others, hearing them out, getting to know who they really are and seeking sound advice. He knows wisdom is acquired.

“Lots of times we don’t know what we want to do,” Melvin says. “But other people have more of a vision. So always listen to others and don’t discard the information that you have. It could be your new plan.” A combination of heeding others’ counsel, a fierce competitive spirit and Melvin’s immense personal drive to excel took him to the top. When a buddy at Langley made the cut to join the astronaut class of 1996, Melvin started thinking “Maybe I could do that."

Melvin is reflective and thoughtful in answering questions about his life and his dream job. When asked whether he feels a special responsibility as a role model because he is African- American, he says immediately: “Lots of people have asked me that. The answer is no. Because I feel that everyone is a role model.

“Like, with pro sports, kids see all the money, the cars, the glamour—but that is not it,” he continues after a pause. “What you are inside can never be taken away. Your character, your positive influence on other people, your dedication—these define you as a man or as a woman.”

Not surprisingly, Melvin’s biggest heroes are his parents. “They’re both teachers,” he says. “One time this guy came up to us at a mall with his family and told me, ‘Without your dad, I would be in prison or on drugs.’ That made a real impression. Because when the guy was a kid, he had a lousy situation at home. My dad helped him to overcome that.”

Melvin’s affection for his elders is tangible. They saw him head for science early. “Mom gave me a chemistry set when I was a kid, and I made this concoction and blew up something on the rug,” Melvin says. “That was like, ‘Wow.’ So I became a chemistry major.”

A Global View

The creative visualization Melvin acquired as an athlete paid off during his NASA training and STS-122. His college football coach had counseled him to, “ ‘Close your eyes. Leland, you are in the end zone, pulling the ball in, pulling it to your body for a catch to win the game,’ ” he remembers. “You’re going through the mechanics of what you’re doing, and when you visualize it and sleep on it, when you wake up the next day, you’ve already done it. So doing it is really second nature.”

Melvin also knows to keep his energy from peaking too soon. “It’s not until you get out on the field and hear the crowd screaming that you start getting yourself completely ready,” he says. “When we’re strapped in and hear the ignition and this motion behind us, that’s when I’ll say, ‘OK, game time.’ ”

The stakes involved in space shuttle missions are exponentially greater than those of any game. Columbus cost $2 billion, so NASA’s prestige rode on the precision of Melvin’s fingertips. In microgravity, Columbus weighs less than a feather but has a whopping mass of more than 14 tons. One wrong move and Melvin could have ruined the mission—or worse. “If I don’t have Columbus on the end of the arm, I have one of my crew members,” Melvin says. “If a suit got snagged on something, that could be a really, really bad situation.”

Melvin emphatically credits his co-workers at NASA for equipping him to thrive. Pre-flight training is so comprehensive that Melvin sounds momentarily baffled when asked how he balances his personal and professional lives. Instead of describing pastimes or hobbies, Melvin praises his neighbors for taking care of his home during training visits to Russia and the mission.

As Melvin learned aboard Atlantis, some things cannot be simulated. You have to be there. “During launch, the solid boosters separate, and then the main engines throttle up to 104 percent, and wham!, you’re rammed back in your seat, accelerating like a human slingshot,” he says.

Melvin kept a pre-mission promise to himself to “take 15 minutes and do nothing but look out the window.” He had earned the privilege. In the docking node of the space station, “We have two nice big portholes. I grabbed a camera, and all I did was watch the earth,” Melvin says, his voice growing hushed. “To see the whole world and the sun coming up over the edge, and then setting, oh man….”

Leland Melvin has utterly no regrets about trading in his cleats and NFL jersey for a pressurized g-suit and space helmet. The Rocket Man is happy.