By Christian Hince | October 9, 2023
For most wide receivers, playing in the NFL is one’s ideal dream. For Leland Melvin however, his ambitions went quite a bit higher than that – literally.
Retired astronaut Leland Melvin speaks at the University of Albany on Oct. 5.
Photo Credit: Christian Hince / ASP
On Oct. 5, the former astronaut spoke at the University at Albany in a lecture presented by the NYS Writers Institute. He talked about his time as an engineer, as a spaceman, and comparatively little of his time as an athlete, using a good-humored slideshow to accompany him.
Melvin described his upbringing as a supportive one, with parents who encouraged a scientific curiosity that started at a very young age. Born in Lynchburg, VA in the 1960s, he looked up to accomplished tennis player Arthur Ashe, a former neighbor, as an example of black excellence.
“My dad talked about his intelligence, his athleticism, his empathy, his character,” he said.
Melvin still holds onto early inspiration he found in children’s books, speaking throughout the night using the analogy of the Man in the Yellow Hat from “Curious George;” a person who one can depend on for support no matter what.
An early moment of this for Melvin came in a homecoming football game for his high school squad, the Heritage Hawks, where the young wide receiver dropped a wide-open pass in the end zone.
Dejected, Melvin came to the sideline and was confronted by a coach, but not in the way he thought he deserved, saying “[he] grabs my facemask and he says, ‘Leland, get back out [in] that game and catch the ball this time!!’”
After catching a game-winning touchdown the next time he found himself in the endzone, Melvin was awarded a scholarship at Richmond University in 1982. The Spiders struggled to records of 0-10 and 3-8 in his first two seasons, but his team improved to appear in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs by his final year.
Melvin appeared in a 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, which highlighted him for his prowess as a player and chemistry student at Richmond. He still holds school records for career receptions (198) and receiving yards (2,669), and sits at fourth in touchdown receptions with 16. Melvin was inducted into Richmond’s athletic hall of fame in 1997.
He was drafted in the 11th round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions but got cut before playing a game due to a hamstring injury. Melvin then started work on a masters in Material Science Engineering at the University of Virginia, and got another shot from the Dallas Cowboys in training camp ahead of the 1987 season.
“They mailed the courses to me,” Melvin said regarding his early graduate student experience, with him studying via cassette type while working out with the Cowboys. Another hamstring injury later, his football career was over.
“What every former NFL player does is go work for NASA, right?” Melvin said jokingly, drawing numerous laughs across the night.
He started work as an engineer at the agency’s Langley Research Center in 1989, eventually applying to be an astronaut in 1998 after seeing his colleague Charlie Camarda get accepted as an astronaut. “If he can get in, then I can get in,” said Melvin.
Following two years in Russia preparing a group of astronauts for space flight, it was time for him to start the bulk of his training.
While Melvin’s NFL career ended in 1987 without any in-season action, his most devastating injury came 14 years later in an accident suffered in a pool of water. In the middle of an anti-gravity training exercise underwater, he suffered an equipment malfunction and after being pulled out of the pool, Melvin was completely deaf.
“The flight surgeon that was there, he walked up to me and he was moving his lips. And I thought he was playing with me,” Melvin said. “He touched my right ear, and there was a river of blood, I could feel it just flowing down the side of my face.”
An emergency surgery later, he was medically disqualified from going to space. “My family came down to help me, to take care of me,” he said. “I was depressed, I was sad, I was crying, I was deaf.”
Melvin is eloquent and charismatic, but he speaks with a lisp characteristic of anyone suffering some level of deafness. The majority of damage was to his left ear, with his right regaining hearing three weeks after the accident.
Through his “Man in the Yellow Hat” treatment from family and friends around him and getting to witness the marvels of the recently-launched Hubble telescope, Melvin recovered while mentally and emotionally intact to the point of being able to have conversations again.
Not long after this, on February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia re-entered earth’s atmosphere after a 16-day mission and disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts on board. In the aftermath, Melvin was tasked with looking after the parents of deceased astronaut David Brown.
“They [the astronauts] were on a medical mission, doing research to help us here on planet Earth, and now I’m trying to console his parents,” he said.
After spending multiple years dealing with both his trauma and that of the Brown family, NASA’s chief medical officer recognized Melvin’s resilience.“This man calls me and he says, ‘Leland, I've been watching you. You didn't give up, you didn't quit, you didn't try to write the tunnel book and get paid. Here's a way for you to fly in space.’”
Melvin went on two missions to the Space Shuttle Atlantis, one in 2008 and one in 2009. He spoke about the engineering intricacies of his time out of Earth’s atmosphere as well as the marvel of a unique view of the planet. “We’re looking out the window, seeing these incredible vistas, the Middle East, the Nile, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean,” he said.
Melvin also treasured the camaraderie aspect of being in space, with his 2008 mission featuring astronauts from France, Germany, and Russia, as well as the U.S. “One crew working together in solidarity, knowing that if any one of us screws up, we’re all gone,” he said.
With Melvin being the only NFL player to ever enter space, his #4 jersey which he wore with the Lions hangs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He kept busy after his time as an astronaut, teaching children through Former President Obama’s STEM Federal Education Program, doing various talks on behalf of NASA, eventually publishing an autobiography in 2017, “Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances.”
For Melvin, everything comes back to education and having the right support. “It’s all about the students, you students in here,” he said, addressing the crowd. “This is all about you, get what you need to rise.”