Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin recalls police arrest that made him sweat

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A police stop could have cost former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin his career in space before he even took the plunge.


© NASA
Melvin’s now famous NASA portrait features his two rescue dogs, Jake and Scout, whom he secretly smuggled into NASA for the photoshoot.

Melvin, who was never afraid to jump into space on two Space Shuttle Atlantis missions to help build the International Space Station, never knew what was going to happen when the cops took him stopped.

“I’ve been on this rocket with millions of pounds of thrust and not once have I been afraid to go into space,” said Melvin, who is Black. “It was when I was stopped by the police that I didn’t even know… I was starting to sweat and I was really holding the wheel really hard. “





© NASA
Melvin was with nine other crew members on the space station in February 2008. On the left side of the frame, from top to bottom, are astronauts Daniel Tani, Stanley Love, and the European Space Agency’s Leopold Eyharts. Center, from the top, are astronauts Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Steve Frick, Peggy Whitson, and Alan Poindexter. Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko is above right and below him is ESA astronaut Hans Schlegel.


“Every dad in the black community has a conversation with their son to tell them that if you’re stopped by an officer, you know, you take the job, which is 10-2 (hands on the wheel), look straight ahead. ” he added. “You say to the officer, you know, you’re really respectful, you say you’re looking for your obvious things.

Melvin spoke on Monday at a panel celebrating black lives in the space industry at the Virtual Humans to Mars 2020 summit hosted by Explore Mars, a non-profit organization that advocates for the human exploration of Mars.


Leland D. Melvin wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin


© NASA
NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin


The panelists – who shared their personal experiences and discussed the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of George Floyd, and subsequent protests – included former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, NASA’s deputy director of load business services lunaire Camille Alleyne and Danielle Wood, director of the space research group at MIT’s Media Lab.

Melvin still remembers a traffic stop when he was a student at Heritage High School in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he graduated in 1982.

“I was in a car with my girlfriend and a cop rolled up on us,” Melvin said. “He took her out of the car and told her that I was raping her because he wanted me to go to jail.

“And you know, when black men come into the prison system, they never really come out and get a second chance. I was going to college on a scholarship and wanted to become a major in chemistry.


Leland D. Melvin standing in front of a building: Melvin aboard the space station in 2009.


© NASA
Melvin aboard the space station in 2009.


Melvin urged people to make sure they are not part of the problem by contributing to racism, asking people to assess both what they are doing to hurt and how they can help fight racism.

The way to space

Fortunately, this stop did not derail his career. Melvin ended up recording over 565 hours in space, but space was not his first choice.

During the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, Melvin said he was “the antenna engineer,” holding the antennas for his parents as they watched.

“And the next day all the kids in the neighborhood said, ‘Do you want to be an astronaut?’ No, I don’t see anyone who looks like me, ”recalls Melvin.


Leland D. Melvin sitting on a blue surface: Melvin read the book to the first and third graders


© Carla Cioffi / NASA
Melvin read “The Moon Over Star” to first and third graders at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School on Tuesday, February 8, 2011, in honor of Black History Month, and in recognition of Black History Month. importance of reading.


Five blocks from the street where Melvin grew up, Arthur Ashe learned to play tennis. Ashe, the only black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, turned pro in 1969. Ashe was also the first black player selected for the United States team. the Davis Cup.


Leland D. Melvin in uniform: NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin was not afraid to fly in space.


© Mark Sowa / NASA
NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin was not afraid to fly in space.


“My dad spoke about his persistence, his athleticism, his intelligence,” said Melvin. “‘I want you to be like him.’ It wasn’t until I got to NASA, when a friend said, ‘You would be a great astronaut.’ ”

Melvin didn’t fill out an application until his friend, Charlie Camarda, entered the astronaut program. “If this guy can come in, I can come in, and that’s where I applied. ”

Melvin was drafted in 1986 to play in the National Football League for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, but he pulled out his hamstrings and ended up playing no regular season games.

In 1989, he began working at the NASA Langley Research Center in the Fiber Optic Sensors group of the Non-Destructive Assessment Science Directorate, according to NASA. He was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1998.

In addition to serving as an astronaut, Melvin has also led NASA’s education program, co-chaired the White House’s Federal Coordination of STEM Education Working Group, and chaired the International Council for Space Education.

Contrasting moments

Melvin learned of George Floyd’s death while in Florida for the launch of NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon.

“I see this black man having his life turned off, saying he can’t breathe,” Melvin said. “And when I heard him call his mother, that’s when I started to cry because I was thinking about my mother. I wondered if it was me, being the life that had been torn from me.

Floyd’s death as former police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes contrasted starkly with the launch of US astronauts from US soil on US rockets for the first time since 2011.

“If we can (send people to the International Space Station), we can do anything. We can solve these problems. ”

And that goes back to the need for diversity, Melvin said.

Melvin said his “aha” moment in space came unexpectedly. He predicted this would happen by helping to install the European Space Agency’s Columbus Laboratory on the International Space Station in 2008.

But that wasn’t until NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson invited Melvin to the Russian segment of the station to share a meal. The crew included astronauts of Russian, French, German, African American and Asian American descent and were hosted by Whitson – the space station’s first female commander, Melvin said.

“We were breaking bread at 17,500 miles per hour, circling the planet every 90 minutes. And that’s when my head exploded, and I had this epiphany on our planet and looked back at it, getting this thing called orbital perspective. ”

It’s something astronauts gain when they look at our planet as a whole.

“I think as a civilization we have to take this thing that we have in space as astronauts,” he said. “And we know that if we didn’t work together as a team and were one of the most diverse teams in space, then we would perish. ”

Working together is the only way Melvin thinks humanity can survive on this planet, return to the moon, and make it to Mars.

“The way we do it is with the right perspective. And we bring that perspective home from space, to return to space as a civilization of diverse people, ”he said. “It’s the perspective together, that we work together, we live together and we change the universe together. “

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