Some people know what career paths they want right from the onset while others discover their passion later in their lives. The bottom line is no one should leave this earth without ever having to fully fulfill what they are put on earth for. That is the mantra former NFL player and NASA astronaut Leland Melvin used to navigate his way from professional football to flying in space.
“I remember this quote, and it said the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why,” Melvin said in an interview with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
“It’s never too late to figure out why you were born,” Melvin continued. “Once you start answering that question, that could be at 95. Let’s say you live to 100. You have five years to live out this passion, this why.”
Melvin speaks so fondly of following one’s passion because as a young boy, he liked building things. He would pick up old bicycle parts and create a new one altogether for himself.
There was an old bread truck he helped his father refurbish into a family camper that had a stove and flip-down bunk beds. He did not hesitate to experiment with anything he could lay his hands on and even when some experiments did not go as planned, it did not quench his interest in science and engineering.
He got the opportunity to attend a special engineering program for minority students in high school at the University of Virginia.
Even at this point, he still did not have dreams of being an astronaut because all American astronauts in the 1960s were white. The first African-American astronaut Guy Bluford flew in space in 1983, some 14 years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had taken the first walk on the moon in 1969.
Melvin’s dream was to be like Arthur Ashe, the first African-American man to be ranked as the No. 1 tennis player in the world.
“I saw someone who looked like me, and I was told he had great character, discipline and all these things,” Melvin recalled. Ashe also achieved his fame at a time when African Americans were still being hanged in the Deep South, Melvin added.
Melvin did not play tennis but played football in the 1980s for the University of Richmond Spiders in Virginia. He was good at the game and had a decorated career as a wide receiver. While playing football, Melvin had enrolled in graduate school to study material science engineering. He would go for football practice during the day and study for graduate school at night.
It was an injured hamstring that cut short his career in football. The injury occurred not long after he was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the NFL. Even though his NFL career was short-lived, Melvin did not let it wear him down.
He picked himself up and plunged into graduate school full time to complete his master’s degree in material science engineering. This was the beginning of his career at NASA.
He worked at Langley Research Center, making optical fiber sensors in 1989. He even worked with renowned African-American NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and astronaut Charlie Bolden, who later became the first permanent African-American NASA administrator.
In 1998, the boy who never dreamt of being an astronaut applied to the NASA astronaut program where he began astronaut training at Johnson Space Center.
During training, a mishap on his suit rendered Melvin deaf in both ears. “After emergency surgery in the hospital, the world-renowned ear, nose and throat doctors said that they don’t know what happened to me, and that I would never fly in space.”
He regained hearing in the right ear three weeks later, but the left ear was still damaged. He believed his career as an astronaut was over or he will just end being an astronaut who does not ‘orbit planet earth.’
He was given a get out of jail free card by Rich Williams, the chief flight surgeon who witnessed how Melvin cleared his ears on a couple of flights “to combat the cabin pressure on these flights.”
“Rich Williams said, ‘Come to my office,’” Melvin recalled. “And he gave me this waiver to fly in space, even though my hearing had not changed significantly. He felt if I could effectively clear my ears, then there’d be no reason why I shouldn’t be able to fly in space. He believed in me. I got this get-out-of-jail-free card. I head back to Houston. And, soon after that, I get assigned to a mission.”
Melvin flew on space shuttle missions STS-122 (2008) and STS-129 (2009). Until his retirement in 2014, he worked as NASA’s associate administrator for the Office of Education. An educationist never really retires; Melvin to this day works in public advocacy as well as in education.
“No matter what gifts that you’ve been blessed to have, lifelong learning and reinvention can also take the gifts that you have, [and] enhance them in a way that you can share them with the next generation of explorers,” Melvin said.
He recounted an experience he had when two little black boys saw him after he had become an astronaut. Melvin as a boy did not have many black astronauts to look up to so he felt he was in the right place at the right time.
“I’ll never forget, when I first became an astronaut, I was on a fire truck driving down the boulevards in Houston celebrating John Glenn’s return to flight on the space shuttle.
“I was a brand-spanking-new astronaut in 1998, driving down the road, and these two little black boys are standing with their father in their orange space suits. And their father points up to the fire truck, basically saying, ‘Look at that guy.’
“And when we make eye contact, it was almost as though these kids had this rocket fuel going through their veins, and they were about to launch off that street. Because they saw me, and they saw the possibilities of them doing what they wanted to do, as being astronauts.
“So that was my first eye-opening moment that said, ‘OK, this does matter. And that what you’re doing, people are watching.’ “