Leland Melvin retired from NASA in 2014, but still helps with public outreach programs. Photo courtesy of Leland Melvin.
Leland Melvin retired from NASA in 2014, but still helps with public outreach programs. Photo courtesy of Leland Melvin.

For Leland Melvin, the journey did not begin with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and “one small step for (a) man.”

Melvin couldn’t actually see the first moon landing, because he was standing behind the TV, holding the rabbit ears so the rest of his family could see it. Besides, there were no Black faces among the Apollo astronauts. And he didn’t like the fighter-jock buzz cut. 

The journey really began when his father pulled into the driveway with an old Merita bread truck, which did not, contrary to his first puzzled impression, portend a future delivering bread.

Instead, the bread truck became a rolling spacecraft that opened the doors of engineering and exploration, an escape from the “somewhat racist” city of Lynchburg.

“And over that summer, we rewired the entire electrical system” of the truck, Melvin said in a TED talk he gave in New York City in 2018. “We plumbed a propane tank into a Coleman stove, we built bunk beds that flipped down. We were turning this into our summer vacation-launchpad-escape pod, this thing that could take us out of Lynchburg.

“It was my time with my dad. And we went to the Smoky Mountains and looked at the purple mountains’ majesty, and we walked along the beach in Myrtle Beach. And this thing was transformative. It showed me what it meant to be an explorer at a very early age.”

Another door was opened by his mother. She was a homemaker who nourished his body with food, but also a teacher who nourished his mind. She gave him an “age-inappropriate, non-OSHA certified chemistry set.” When he created “the most incredible explosion” in the living room, he knew he could be a chemist.

Fast forward — very, very fast — to 2008. The boy who helped his dad rewire the bread truck and blew up his mom’s living room is now an astronaut. 

On his first space flight, he rockets to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Atlantis with an international crew. His main job is to use a robotic arm to retrieve a $2 billion science laboratory — no pressure — from the shuttle payload bay and install it on the space station. 

With the Columbus laboratory successfully installed, he heaves a sigh of relief.  

The crew gathers in the Russian segment of the ISS, and they bring food, and Melvin brings the rehydrated vegetables. 

“And there’s this moment where I transformed back to my mother’s kitchen. You can smell the beef and barley heating up … and there are people there from all around the world, African American, Asian American, French, German, Russian …. breaking bread at 17,500 miles per hour, going around the planet every 90 minutes, seeing a sunrise and a sunset every 45 [minutes].”

Melvin floats over to the window and looks down. Azure, indigo, navy blue, turquoise — words can’t capture the colors filling his eyeballs. He needs new definitions.

“And I look down at the planet and I see all of humanity. And my perspective changes at that moment, because I’m flying over Lynchburg, Virginia, my hometown, and my family’s probably breaking bread. And five minutes later, we’re flying over Paris, with [French astronaut] Leo Eyharts looking down at his parents probably having some wine and cheese, and [Russian cosmonaut] Yuri’s [Malenchenko] looking off to Moscow, and they’re probably eating borscht or something else.”

And the crew members, traveling at nearly 5 miles per second, see their families below as part of one civilization.

The experience changed Melvin. 

“And when I think about being that little skinny boy from sometimes racist Lynchburg, Virginia, I would never have had that perspective to think about myself of being an astronaut if my father hadn’t taken us on a journey in this radical craft that we built with our own two hands.”

Melvin (blue shirt) flew to the International Space Station in 2009 with Dr. Robert Satcher, a surgeon and fellow Virginia native (right).
Melvin (blue shirt) flew to the International Space Station in 2009 with Dr. Robert Satcher, a surgeon and fellow Virginia native (right). Photo courtesy of Leland Melvin.

The journey that took Leland Melvin 250 miles above the Earth began in Lynchburg, which had a population of around 55,000 in the mid-1960s.

Melvin, 59, was born in 1964. He came from a strong, supportive family. For most of his childhood and adolescence they lived on Hilltop Drive in the Fort Hill neighborhood. His parents, Deems and Grace Melvin, were educators. At Linkhorne Middle School, Deems Melvin taught language arts and Grace Melvin taught home economics. Deems Melvin was also a musician who played drums and sang in a 12-piece band.

Leland Melvin was 5 on July 20, 1969, when the Eagle landed at Tranquility Base as millions of families around the world watched. “I call myself the antenna engineer,” he said in a Zoom interview from his home in Lynchburg. “I was holding the rabbit ears on the Sylvania black-and-white set. Once you get it set to the right place, you just really can’t move.” When he tried to sneak a peek, he was told, “Don’t move!”

His real education in engineering began with the conversion of the bread truck, supervised by his dad. “He started making drawings of all the things we wanted to put in this. So that’s electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, I was learning engineering, I didn’t even know it,” he said. 

His dad painted over the Merita lettering, and the bread truck became a camper. “And so it gave me an example of having a vision for something and not letting the lettering or the words get in the way of your vision.”

At first, young Melvin’s vision didn’t include science. He wanted to be Arthur Ashe, the tennis sensation from Richmond who had trained with Dr. Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg physician and pioneer of Black tennis who lived on nearby Pierce Street. 

Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975.  Deems Melvin talked to his son about Ashe’s intelligence, athleticism and character, “all things that he was trying to instill in me. And I said, if my dad liked this guy, he must be a good guy. And then he was winning all these tournaments, too. So I started taking tennis lessons and started playing and … I played in middle school and high school, and I still play to this day.”

At Heritage High School, Melvin also played football, a wide receiver on a team that mostly ran the ball. 

“So I never really caught many balls. And the fact that I made it to college [at the University of Richmond] on a football scholarship was kind of a fluke. I wasn’t a blue-chipper, and maybe some of the blue-chippers that they were looking at signed with someone else.”

At the University of Richmond, Melvin worked hard and earned the coaches’ respect, and he started getting game time. As a senior in 1985, Melvin had 65 catches for 956 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Detroit Lions took him in the 11th round of the 1986 draft but he pulled a hamstring and got released. Another pulled hamstring with the Dallas Cowboys ended his football career.

If there was ever an NFL prospect who did not have all his eggs in one basket, it was Melvin. Melvin had earned a B.S. in chemistry at Richmond and academic All-American honors.

He got a job at the NASA’s historic Langley Research Center in Hampton. Established in 1917, Langley played, and still plays, a crucial role in the development of aeronautics and the space program. At Langley, Melvin used optical sensors to measure damage in aerospace materials. Meanwhile, he completed a master’s degree at the University of Virginia in materials science engineering.

One day, a friend handed him an application and said, “Hey, you’d be great astronaut. And they’re selecting people. They’re looking for materials scientists.” Melvin didn’t apply because he still didn’t think of himself as astronaut material. 

Later, another friend, Charlie Camarda, was accepted for astronaut training. “Charlie flew up to Langley with John Young, who walked on the moon. And I was giving a lecture talking to them about the research I was still doing. And John Young fell asleep. And then he woke up at the end of my talk, and he said, ‘Leland, this is great work you’re doing. You know, you should apply to the astronaut corps.’ And then Charlie and him got on the jet and flew back to Houston.”

Young, a moon walker on Apollo 16 who also flew on Gemini and the space shuttle, changed Melvin’s mind. Melvin applied for the 1998 class. 

“John Young was on the selection board. And he gave a preamble before I came in the room talking about the work I had done at Langley and what was going on. And so, I think he was instrumental probably in helping me get into the astronaut corps on my first try.”

Victor Cardwell was three years ahead of Melvin at Heritage High School. Like Melvin, he came from a strong family and played football. 

“I was never surprised by anything Leland accomplished,” said Cardwell, now a Roanoke attorney and the first Black president of the Virginia Bar Association. “You can never expect somebody to grow up and be a rocket scientist. But if there was ever anybody who was going to do it, Leland was it.”

On Feb. 7, 2008, Melvin rocketed into space aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, with the primary goal of installing the Columbus laboratory aboard the ISS.

In November 2009, Melvin flew another mission on Atlantis to deliver 30,000 pounds of replacement parts to the ISS. On his two flights he logged 565 hours in space.

Dr. Robert Satcher (left) and Leland Melvin (right). By permission Leland Melvin.
Dr. Robert Satcher (left) and Leland Melvin (right). Used by permission of Leland Melvin.

In 2010 Melvin became NASA’s associate administrator for education, charged with inspiring interest in science and technology and raising awareness of NASA’s goals and mission. He retired from NASA in 2014, but still helps with public outreach programs.

“They call me every now and then,” he said. “I try to use my experiences … to help get kids and people inspired around the future, which is hopefully brighter than the now. When you think about someone having belief in themselves, access, an opportunity, those things are, I think, the special secret sauce to anyone doing what they want to do. But that belief in yourself is something that I think sometimes kids these days don’t get. There’s imposter syndrome: I’m the only person in this office or this place that looks like me. And sometimes you feel, maybe, do I have the right stuff? They can transcend that when they believe in themselves. And I think that’s a big part of what our challenge is as educators, to get these kids to believe that they can do this stuff.”

In February, Melvin and Victor Glover spoke at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Glover is set to pilot the Artemis II mission scheduled for 2024. Artemis II will fly to the moon and back, setting the stage for Artemis III, the first landing of humans on the moon since Apollo 17 more than a half-century ago. 

Victor Glover. Courtesy of  Christopher Michel
Victor Glover. Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

“Leland represents all of us well,” Glover said. “I mean, kids all over the world look up to him. And that’s beautiful, because he is such a great ambassador.”

Glover invoked Carter Woodson, founder of Negro History Week, which evolved into Black History Month. “He said this: What we need is not the history of selected races or nations, but we need the history of the world, void of race, religious and gender bias. We need our story without bias. And that’s the power and the purpose of representation. 

“The original astronauts, the Mercury Seven, they picked one person seven times — mid-30s, military test pilot, and they were all white guys.

“If you look at the next smallest class selected since that class, it happened to be my class in 2013. There were eight of us, four men, four women, a few military test pilots, couple scientists, several engineers, but we were diverse. And what’s the practical impact of that?

“We’re helping to tell a story that’s much more multifaceted, that much more represents the America that we serve.

“But here’s the other thing. We brought skills to the table that weren’t here before. I’m a test pilot and can do some things. But my classmate, Jessica Meir, who is a physiologist who researches the anatomy of animals that can live in extreme environments — do you think that was important when we were designing spacesuits to go out in the vacuum of space? Heck, yes. She’s also a great outdoors person and athlete. And so we brought a greater array of skills. 

“Exploration is to go places and analyze things that often have not been done before. And your education and training and character are what enable you to do that safely. And so by bringing in a broader set of skills, we not only represent America better, we do a better job at science and tech and engineering and logistics.

“I look at Leland as the best of these things. Listen, of course, little Black kids — Leland is one of the folks who enables young people of all stripes that look like I did when I was young, to see themselves in a spacesuit, in a spacecraft, at a drafting table, in technical meetings, in leadership.

“And it’s not just little brown kids. Kids that don’t speak English, kids that are white, all colors of the rainbow, look up to Leland because he’s a good person. He shows up in his humanity, and you can connect with him and you can listen to him. He’s a great storyteller. He can connect these very technical things that we do, to anybody, a group of scientists, or a roomful of third graders. And I’ve been blessed to do those things with him. He is such a role model and friend and mentor, he’s my brother. I’m so glad that we have someone like him on the team.”

Melvin talks to students at a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Arlington on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Leland Melvin talks to students at a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Arlington in 2013. Courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Melvin is also a team player in his hometown. He has lent his support to the Academy Center of the Arts on Lynchburg’s Main Street, and to the Jubilee Family Development Center, where he made a large donation to fund the Astronaut Leland Melvin STEM Center. Melvin is “a major, major part of Lynchburg now,” said Sterling Wilder, a Lynchburg city councilman and executive director of the Jubilee Center. 

Melvin is on the board of BWXT Technologies, a Lynchburg company that manufactures nuclear components. Rex Geveden is the CEO. 

“When I came into the business, we started doing some work with NASA around a concept called nuclear thermal propulsion,” Geveden said. “The idea is to build a nuclear rocket engine, which is much more efficient than chemical rocket engines. And so we started thinking, we might like to have some space expertise on the board. And Leland Melvin, as a twice-flown NASA astronaut, has a long and excellent history in space. I mean, what a thing, a guy from Lynchburg, Virginia, who’s got a stellar history in the space background, who could participate on the board of a Lynchburg-based public company, which is pretty rare in itself. So it all fit together.”

Beyond his technical expertise, “Leland’s a powerful cultural influence in the city of Lynchburg. Obviously he’s a person of color, and so I think he’s viewed sort of iconically by the African American community, for sure. But Leland’s a person who generates a ton of goodwill wherever he goes, because he’s just a good dude. He’s genuine. He’s got a big heart.”

Melvin with his rescue dogs Jake and Scout in an official NASA photo in 2009. Photo by Robert Markowitz/NASA/Johnson Space Center.
Melvin with his rescue dogs Jake and Scout in an official NASA photo in 2009. Courtesy of Robert Markowitz/NASA/Johnson Space Center.

Asked about his family, Melvin mentioned his sister, nieces and cousins. He famously sneaked his two rescue dogs, Jake and Scout, into an official NASA portrait session in 2009, and appeared in an episode of the Netflix series “Dogs.” 

Another passion is music. Melvin composes and records piano pieces. Judging from a video he posted to Facebook, his self-description as a “hack” jazz piano player is too modest.

His dad and mom, both deceased, remain a presence. He hears them when the wind blows.

“I have two wind chimes you might be able to hear back over there, with my mom’s name and my dad’s name, and they’re constantly reminding me of things that I should be doing, when the wind blows.”

The day before the Cardinal News interview, he was hooking up a bush hog to a tractor, a technical task requiring the same type of mentality he learned from his father, the language arts teacher who was an amateur engineer. 

The voice of John Young, who died in 2018, is present as well.

After Melvin’s formal interview for the astronaut job, he joined some astronauts at a gathering spot in Houston.

“John Young came up to me and he says — I’ll never forget this — ‘Leland, once we stop exploring as a civilization, we will falter. We will die.’ So it was inclusive of everyone, not just the American space program … not just exploration of space, but exploring in general, just having the mindset of thinking of the future and trying new things.”

Melvin isn’t done exploring, but if he withdrew to a mountaintop monastery tomorrow, he would leave an enviable record.

Geveden, of BWXT, pointing to his athletic accomplishments, spaceflights and membership on a Fortune 1000 board, said: “Pretty good bio, isn’t it?”

Electric car on the moon: full-scale model of the Apollo 17 lunar rover. Randy Walker photo.
Electric car on the moon: full-scale model of the Apollo 17 lunar rover. Photo by Randy Walker.

‘From Virginia to the Moon’

Exhibit honors human “computers” and state’s other contributions to spaceflight 

An exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, “Apollo: When We Went To The Moon,” is on display through Dec. 31. A room devoted to the Old Dominion’s role in space exploration, “From Virginia to the Moon,” features Leland Melvin’s flight suit, among other displays.

“The birthplace of our human-in-space program is in Hampton, Virginia, at NASA Langley Research Center,” said Andrew Talkov, senior director of curatorial affairs at the museum. “It was there that how we would get to the moon was largely determined, where we would land on the moon. And every one of the astronauts who has stepped foot on the moon did their training in some part at NASA Langley Research Center. So Virginia has deep roots in not only the early days of our human-in-space program, but even to this day Virginians are helping to plan our next voyage to the moon after 50 years of absence from that celestial body.”

Melvin appeared at the museum on April 15 to promote the exhibit as well as his 2018 book, “Chasing Space.” It was one of the most popular programs Talkov has seen at the museum.

“For someone so remarkably accomplished, he is so warm and welcoming and friendly to every single person that he met that day,” Talkov said. “And then he will be back this fall to have conversations with another Virginia-born astronaut, Dr. Robert Satcher. The two of them flew in 2009 on the space shuttle to the International Space Station, and it was a historic flight because it was the first time that two Black astronauts had been in space together.” That program is scheduled for Oct. 20. 

Sheila Thibeault operates a computer at Langley, 1967. NASA/Langley photo.
Sheila Thibeault operates a computer at Langley in 1967. Courtesy of NASA/Langley.

Among the highlights is a full-scale model of the Apollo 17 moon buggy, which visitors can sit in. 

The exhibit pays tribute to the human “computers” — almost all women — who crunched the numbers at Langley starting in the 1930s. With the arrival of electronic computing in the 1950s, many “computers” switched to programming or joined engineering groups.

Katherine Johnson, Langley "computer." Her story was told in the book and film "Hidden Figures." NASA photo.
Katherine Johnson, a Langley “computer.” Her story was told in the book and film “Hidden Figures.” Courtesy of NASA.

During World War II, Black women with college degrees worked in the segregated West Area Computers facility. Their story was told in Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2010 book “Hidden Figures,” which was made into a Hollywood movie. Katherine Johnson, who joined the West Area Computers in 1953, later calculated trajectories for Apollo 11.

Johnson retired from NASA in 1986 but continued to be active in the National Technical Association, which Melvin described as “the oldest professional organization of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in the Black community.”

Melvin worked with Johnson when both were officers of the organization. “I didn’t know the history of what Katherine had done … ’til the movie came out, because she didn’t really tell people what she did. She was just doing the numbers, is what she said.”

Admission to “Apollo,” including “From Virginia To The Moon,” is included in museum daily admission. For information on hours and tickets, see virginiahistory.org.

Friden SW-10 calculating machine of the type used by Langley's computers was capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, and made loud clicking noises. Randy Walker photo.
Friden SW-10 calculating machine of the type used by Langley’s computers was capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, and made loud clicking noises. Photo by Randy Walker.

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...