"Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information." - Edward Murrow
Leland Melvin's life has been an unexpected journey. It stretched farther than any football field and beyond the typical American dream. His experience as an astronaut not only allowed him to discover outer space, but himself.
Melvin appeared at the Penn State Altoona's Distinguished Speakers Series last evening in the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts on the Ivyside Campus. The African-American astronaut spent 25 years in the United States space program following a short spell in the National Football League (NFL), overcoming some notable challenges along the way.
Melvin had no lack of childhood role models. One of them was Nichelle Nichols, the prominent African-American star from the original television series, Star Trek. Many believe that she was a significant contributor to breaking down racism and discrimination in television. Nichols caught young Melvin's attention, not only because of her groundbreaking television role, but also because of her good looks. "If there are women like that in space....I want to go there," Melvin joked.
African-American tennis stars Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe and aviator Chauncey Spencer all had a connection to his hometown of Lynchburg, VA. "They were all planting the seeds for me," Melvin concluded.
His great love of science, a superior work ethic and astounding athletic gifts helped him secure a football scholarship and a chemistry degree from the University of Richmond. In 1986, after a successful collegiate career, he was drafted into the National Football League's Detroit Lions as a wide receiver. However, injuries cut his football dream short leading him back to science.
Melvin started his career with NASA in 1989 and was selected as an astronaut in 1998, but yet again, a major injury halted him. During a training exercise in the neutral buoyancy pool, Melvin temporarily lost his hearing. As a result, he was told he could not travel into space. Though disappointed by this news, he decided to stay on. "There was something that told me to stay the course," Melvin reflected.
Luckily, Melvin's health issues were resolved and he was assigned to two missions on the International Space Station. While living in the station, he came to appreciate the diversity of the crew. "Breaking bread with people who used to be our enemies…is when I had this cognitive shift." Melvin has traveled across the country to educate and promote science, space, and technology to people of all ages, hoping to "prepare students for jobs we can't yet imagine."