From The Gridiron To The Galaxy At Large: An Astronaut's Unexpected Journey When NFL hopeful Leland Melvin suffered a hamstring injury, it opened the door to an unusual backup career: NASA astronaut. (This piece originally aired Feb. 7, 2015 on Weekend All Things Considered.)
NPR logo

From The Gridiron To The Galaxy At Large: An Astronaut's Unexpected Journey

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/420338751/420338752" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From The Gridiron To The Galaxy At Large: An Astronaut's Unexpected Journey

From The Gridiron To The Galaxy At Large: An Astronaut's Unexpected Journey

From The Gridiron To The Galaxy At Large: An Astronaut's Unexpected Journey

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/420338751/420338752" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

When NFL hopeful Leland Melvin suffered a hamstring injury in practice, it opened the door to an unusual backup career: NASA astronaut. (This piece originally aired Feb. 7, 2015 on Weekend All Things Considered.)

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This July Fourth weekend, we're revisiting the all-American story of Leland Melvin. Earlier this year, he told us how he went from the NFL to NASA for our series My Big Break. Leland was signed to the Dallas Cowboys the same year he enrolled at the University of Virginia, studying material science and engineering.

LELAND MELVIN: And so they videotaped the courses, and they mailed them to me in Dallas. So by day, I'm catching balls for America's team, and at night, I'm watching material science and engineering courses in a master's program. I'm like, oh, my goodness.

RATH: But an injury during practice ended Melvin's NFL career.

MELVIN: Then a friend of mine told me - he said, Leland, NASA's looking for astronauts. And you'd be a great astronaut - your football background, your material science and engineering. And he handed me an application. I looked at the application. I said, OK, so I apply at the next selection, and I got in. Yeah, it was pretty incredible.

Went through a series of training sessions. And one of which was in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where we have the International Space Station space shuttle submerged underneath, you know, 30 feet of water so that you can an actually be floating like you're in space, wearing this white suit, looking like the Michelin Man.

They lower you down in the water. And one of the things that they forgot to put on my helmet was this little pad on your neck ring. So if you're the kind of person that needs to squeeze your nose to clear your ears, which I am, this little pad would allow you to press your nose against it so you could clear your ears as you go down in the water column. And mine wasn't in there, so I was straining to clear. And I tell the test director, who's in the control center - I tell him to turn the volume up in the headset. I could not hear a thing. All I heard was static and white noise. They took me out of the water. There was blood coming out of my ear, and they rushed me to the emergency room. They did surgery. They looked around. They couldn't find anything. And, you know, being an astronaut, you need your hearing. And if something happens and they can't explain why it happened, they won't let you fly in space. My hearing slowly came back, but I was medically disqualified still to fly because they didn't know why it happened.

And then I went to Washington to work in education, and at that same time, February 1, 2003, we lost Space Shuttle Columbia. At that point, we had to take care of our families. And I was there to help console the parents of David Brown, who lived outside of Washington. And on the night of the accident, David's father said to me - this was another - this was kind of a transformational moment in my life because he said to me - he said, my son is gone. There's nothing you can do to bring him back, but the biggest tragedy would be if we don't continue to fly in space to carry on their legacy.

And then as we fly around the country to different memorial services, the chief flight surgeon is sitting beside me, taking notes. He's watching me clear my ears and go up and down in the airplane. And he calls me in his office, and he says Leland, I'm going to sign a waiver for you to fly in space. That was one of my big breaks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Advisors, initiate O2 flow. One minute and counting...

MELVIN: Space Shuttle Atlantis was our first mission. And we're looking at each other. We're pointing to the books and things, and we're pointing to the computers. And we had these huge smiles on our faces, you know - just like, yeah, we're about to go to space.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Activated. T-Minus 10...

MELVIN: The three main engines light - that's when the silent rocket boosters ignite.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Main engine ignition - four, three, two, one, zero and liftoff of Space Shuttle Atlantis, as Columbus sets sail on a voyage of science to the space station.

MELVIN: It was this incredible surge of force and sound and your head is starting to shake, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roger, roll Atlantis.

MELVIN: I had a mirror on my wrist. And I could look out the overhead window and see where the plume connected back to the ground. About three miles from where that plume was was where my family was sitting, and it made this connection with me that they were with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE ATLANTIS LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Atlantis, go at (unintelligible).

MELVIN: And eight and a half minutes later, we're now in space. And we're floating, and the things that you dropped are now floating around you. And seeing this blue marble below us with no borders as we go around the planet every 90 minutes at 17,500 miles per hour, looking at places where there's unrest and war. And we're working together as one team to help advance our civilization. It's just an incredible, incredible moment for me.

RATH: Leland Melvin launched into space a second time in 2009 before he was appointed head of NASA Education. He's also the host of "Child Genius," which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on Lifetime. You don't have to be an astronaut to have a big break. Send us your story - mybigbreak@npr.org.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.