Astronaut Leland Melvin Talks Mission, Motivation

The space shuttle Atlantis recently landed after a 12-day mission to the International Space Station. Among its crew: Leland Melvin, one of a few African Americans to ever travel into space. Melvin talks about his mission and his personal journey through America's space program.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES. A month ago, Leland Melvin got his first taste of space. He helped crew the Shuttle Atlantis on its 13-day mission to the International Space Station.

Melvin is one of only a handful of African-Americans to make it through astronaut training and into the skies, but he didn't plan on a NASA career. After college, he was drafted by the NFL to play wide receiver for the Detroit Lions.

I spoke with Melvin about the Atlantis mission and what it feels like to finally achieve liftoff.

Mr. LELAND MELVIN (Astronaut): You know, you hear the 3-2-1, the main engines light, the solid rocket-boosters light. And you know when they light, you're heading off the planet. And you feel the rumble, the vibrations, and we have mirrors on our sleeve that we look out of the overhead window, and you can see the earth, you know, leaving you at a very, very rapid pace.

The engines, they throttle down to 74 percent. When they come back up to 104 percent, it feels like someone has you in a slingshot, propelling you off to the cosmos, and it was one of the most amazing things - not only the feelings, but working together as a team doing all the things that were done in training to ensure a safe launch.

And I relate of that to, you know, some of the football training where you're on a highly functioning team, and, you know, there are things that happen in a very short period of time that give you the sense of satisfaction when you win. And it's the same thing here, and I try to tell kids, you know, if you can play sports, if you can do all these things, you can be an astronaut because it's very similar. The training is similar, it's just that you have to learn something different.

CHIDEYA: When you achieved an exit from the earth's atmosphere and started floating around, what's that like?

Mr. MELVIN: Well, you know, all my friends and colleagues who have done it before, they tell you about it, and the sensation, the feelings, but until you push off of a structure and start floating, you know, unhindered by the gravitational pull of the earth, you twist, you tumble, you turn, you try to keep from going out of control, which is so easy to do, and it's so freeing.

CHIDEYA: Now the Atlantis had some delays, and there was testing of an element of the fuel-sensor system. NASA has had some technical problems in the past. Were you ever concerned that the craft you were going up in was going to be ready for the task?

Mr. MELVIN: You know, obviously the things with Challenger and Columbia and things have happened, and, you know, we have such a dedicated team on the ground that focuses, you know, especially on the details, but ensures that we are flying safely. And that's one of our tenants at NASA, safety is job one. And I just have a lot of faith in the people here, and I have, you know, faith in general that things will work out. And, you know, I never paused once. I was ready to go as soon as they said hey, it is clear to fly.

CHIDEYA: Ronald McNair was one of the astronauts who died in the space shuttle disaster, and he's someone who - his name is on scholarships, and he's someone who is revered as a hero. How many African-American astronauts are there now, besides yourself? I mean, I'm sure that when you go out and speak to kids, when you go out and speak to anyone, people are like, wow, this is amazing. How is the astronaut corps in terms of diversity?

Mr. MELVIN: We have currently - and by the way, I see a picture of Ron McNair, and I brought a picture back for his wife, Cheryl(ph), who lives in the neighborhood. And he has given us so much inspiration and the other, you know, fallen heroes like Michael Anderson have given the African-Americans in the corps inspiration to ensure that we bring more people into the corps.

Currently, we have four or five of us in the corps right now, and we are in a recruitment campaign right now to bring more qualified people into the astronaut corps. You know, we - diversity is, you know, one of the very important thing that we're looking for and people that can do the job.

CHIDEYA: So when you go and talk to kids, I mean you know, things always change over time. I remember that show, I think it was called "Big Blue Marble," and, you know, and really seeing space as this exciting thing when I was a kid. And now I wonder if kids are more into, well, I want to be the next Jay-Z, or I want to be the next Tyra Banks - not that there's anything wrong with that. But when you go out and talk to kids, do they have any aspirations? Do you ever meet kids who say I want to be an astronaut, too?

Mr. MELVIN: Well, I do. And, you know, I do meet the Jay-Z and the Tyra wannabees, also, and I tell them hey, go for your dreams, but have a fall-back plan, and that - you know for me, that fall-back plan was education. And I see kids all the time that you show them the slides of what it's like to be in space, and you know, this whole different experience.

It's something that I never grew up with and a lot of these kids have never seen. And plus they've never really seen people like myself flying in space. So that's a new one for them. And once you show them that, you know, I was in algebra class like you were in eighth grade, and I did the same things that you did, you know, there's nothing magic about Leland Melvin, part of it is the education of letting them see that there is, you know, this dedication and this working hard, this work ethic. And if they have that work ethic and do apply themselves, then they can do it also.

CHIDEYA: Why is space important - not just for you, not just for people who are interested in space exploration, not just for people who may look at the practical applications down the line, but for the country?

Mr. MELVIN: Well, I think of not just for the country. I'm thinking for the world. I mean, I was floating through the space station, and I saw, you know, a German astronaut working in the Columbus module. I saw a French astronaut working. I saw an African-American astronaut working. And, you know, when you look down on the earth and you see all of these places where there is turmoil, where there is war and things going on, but we have harmony in space where people are working together for a greater cause, even without all the scientific research and things that have developed, it's a way to show how our world can work together in peace and harmony.

CHIDEYA: Do you have any concerns that the space shuttle program will be closed down and nothing else will come to replace it? Or do you think that there is going to be either a continuation of the program or a transition into, you know, future designs? How do you see that playing out?

Mr. MELVIN: The shuttle is supposed to retire in 2010. As a civilization, you know, once - I think once we stop exploring, that's when we will falter. So I think space exploration has to continue for our society, for our world, for the people and humankind.

CHIDEYA: Leland, thanks so much.

Mr. MELVIN: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was NASA astronaut Leland Melvin. He just returned from a 13-day mission to the International Space Station on the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

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