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Melvin rockets into space aboard space shuttle Atlantis

At 2:45 p.m. on Feb. 7, the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis took off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., carrying 1986 University of Richmond graduate Leland Melvin.

"Tears came to my eyes," said Cathy Melvin Clarke, Melvin's sister, who witnessed the launch in Florida and estimated about 40 to 50 family members attended as well. Melvin's chemistry professor at Richmond, William Myers, and one of his high school teachers also attended the launch.

Melvin is one of seven crew members on Atlantis, whose mission is to deliver a $2 billion European research lab to the NASA International Space Station. Melvin's job, along with fellow astronauts Dan Tani and Leopold Eyharts, was to use Atlantis' robotic arm to move the 14-ton lab from the shuttle and attach it to the space station. The lab was connected to the space station on Monday.

"The European community is very pleased," Clarke said. "The robotic arm represented different countries, the future of mankind and NASA."

A couple of hours before the launch, Melvin called Clarke. Clarke put the phone up to the microphone of the bus they were taking to NASA's designated area for extended family members, where Melvin told his family he loved them.

"That's the kind of guy Leland is," she said.

Melvin was scheduled to enter space on Dec. 6, but after complications in the fuel tank, it was delayed more than two months. It briefly looked like this launch would be canceled, as well, because of bad weather.

On Wednesday, NASA gave the launch a 30 percent chance of occurring. Just before going to the NASA's designated area for extended family and friends, Clarke said she saw "a few little drops" of rain, but "in a matter of minutes the sky was blue."

It was pouring rain on Friday, she said.

"We really prayed for this particular launch on this particular day," Clarke said. "It's incredible, the things he's seen already."

Melvin has also exchanged e-mails with his football coach at Richmond, Dal Shealy.

"I'm up there today because of the opportunity you gave me to come to Richmond and study," Shealy said Melvin told him.

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Shealy was the only Division I football coach to offer Melvin a scholarship when he graduated Heritage High School in Lynchburg, Va. Melvin was undersized, but after Shealy met him and his family, he thought Melvin could help his team. In his Richmond career, Melvin finished first on the all-time receptions list with 198 and all-time receiving yards with 2,669. He is fourth in touchdowns with 16.

"I don't ever recall a single time at Richmond if his hand touched the ball he didn't bring it in," Shealy said. "When you watched him on film, he's the type of guy who would get his head knocked off and would hang onto the ball."

After graduating from Richmond, Melvin was selected in the 11th round of the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. After pulling a hamstring in training camp, he was released, and the following year, he went to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys, but another hamstring injury ended his professional football career.

Melvin majored in chemistry at Richmond and was a second team academic all-American, eventually embarking on a career as a research scientist for NASA. He received his master's degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia in 1991 and was accepted by NASA's astronaut corps in 1998. He also served as co-manager of NASA's Educator Astronaut Program, which sent him traveling across the country to speak to teachers and students.

In Richmond, the launch was viewed in the Tyler Haynes Commons on a big-screen television that received a live feed from NASA's Web site. Students were given "space food," which included Milky Way candy bars and moonpies and stickers of the official NASA patch astronauts wear.

Senior Tanner Daniel was among the 50 or 60 students, faculty and alumni, in the Commons.

"Everyone started counting down at 10. Once it got down to one, everyone started clapping and going wild," Daniel said. "We're obviously displaced by, like, 20 years, but the fact that a bunch of students were there and felt a connection, it's something that's cool"

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