CAPE CANAVERAL – Most people struggle to find a new path when their primary career ends unexpectedly. Some say that it’s hard to get ahead in this world. Then there are those that prove it is possible to have a vibrant second career and that it is possible to make it – in spades. Leland Melvin is one of those people.
Back in 1986 it seemed he would be a wide receiver for the NFL. Then an injury sidelined him when he was training with the Detroit Lions. He tried again the following spring with the Dallas Cowboys – but the same injury resurfaced and dashed his NFL hopes. Few manage to pull off a second high-caliber career after such a setback. But Melvin did just that – he went on to join one of America’s most elite clubs – he became an astronaut.
He went on to fly on two space shuttle missions, STS-122 and STS-129, both onboard Atlantis, both to the International Space Station (ISS).
He didn’t start out with the plan to be an astronaut however; in fact he really didn’t think that he would work for the space agency. A job fair, of all things, helped him become an engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
“I really didn’t think I wanted to be with NASA,” Melvin said during an interview at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center just before the shuttle Discovery launched on its final mission. “This one lady would have none of it. I helped her with her bags and she helped me with my career.”
Melvin got accepted as an astronaut in 1998. However, he never drifted far from his roots – and those were firmly planted in education. After he completed his missions to space, his mind and his path went back to education. In October of 2010 he was selected as NASA’s Associate Administrator for Education.
Since selected he has worked to make NASA’s education elements a more hands-on affair. Melvin has become a tireless advocate of NASA’s Summer of Innovation, Explorer Schools as well as the numerous other education programs that the space agency supports. One of his responsibilities is to raise public awareness about how much NASA does to support education. It was in that capacity that he was at Kennedy Space Center on launch day.
For some, coming down to a shuttle launch is a perk of the job; Melvin seemed far more interested with getting the word out about NASA’s educational outreach efforts, jumping from one interview to the next.
“People really don’t realize how much of a tremendous investment that NASA truly is,” said Melvin. “Basically, for every dollar they put in – they get eighteen dollars in return. Out of every tax dollar, I think it boils down to one-seventh of one cent goes to NASA – for that the public gets the astronaut corps, the shuttle, space station, all the probes to the planets, on and on…it’s really an incredible deal.”
Melvin’s life has been shaped by education, from his parents, to his experiences in college and now with NASA. Sometimes, Melvin takes a second from the frenetic pace of his job and looks back.
“Education has always been important to me, I got that from my parents,” said Melvin. Both of his parents were teachers, a fact he is reminded about whenever he visits his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia. “People still come up to me and thank me for what my father did for them.”