The Collegian
Tuesday, May 24, 2022

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Melvin inspires youth, details Atlantis flight

Leland Melvin never really intended to become an astronaut.

But 10 years after he was accepted to NASA's astronaut training program, Melvin became the first University of Richmond graduate in space in February.

Melvin was on campus this weekend to present his Reach for the Stars II program, which aims to inspire young students to pursue math and science education. He said he felt students could lose their excitement for the subjects while in school, and it was essential that the United States keep up with the rest of the world in discoveries in these areas.

Melvin helped deliver a European research lab to the International Space Station with six other members of the STS-122 Atlantis. The mission totaled 5.3 million miles and lasted 13 days during which Melvin operated the shuttle's robotic arm.

After an inauguration weekend of being approached by admirers, Melvin shared his experiences with an audience of about 400 elementary and middle school children and their families Sunday afternoon in the Robins Center. He also passed along four pieces of advice for the youngsters to follow while he showed them videos of his experiences, including operating the robotic arm and eating M&M-filled water bubbles for supper.

He first ran through the audience to demonstrate his senior homecoming football game experience to show the children that when they fail, they should get back up and try again instead of giving up. Melvin told them they should believe in their dreams, but always have a back-up plan, which included eating their vegetables and getting good grades.

He used himself as an example, pointing out that although he had been drafted to play in the NFL, he had always made sure he had his education. This education became essential for his success after his injuries ended his football career. In addition to this, he told the children to be patient for their dreams to come true. He had to wait 10 years for the opportunity to go into space, he said.

The most fascinating part of his experience was seeing how beautiful the world was from space without borders, and realizing how fragile it is, he said. He said he supported the university's "eco-challenge" because he thought students should leave the university with the knowledge that their actions could affect the world in a good way or a bad way.

A 1986 Richmond College graduate from Lynchburg, Va., Melvin attended the university on a football scholarship he said he had landed on a fluke during his senior homecoming game at Heritage High School. As Melvin ran into the end zone with the crowd roaring, he reached his arms out as he saw the ball come toward him -- then watched it fall to the ground, he said. He did not know Richmond football scout Morgan Hought was in the stands, he said. His coaches told him to run the play again.

"That was a very critical point," Melvin said. "Because you either fail in front of all your friends, especially all your friends who've gone off to college and come back to see you playing in a homecoming game.

"But we ran the same play again, and low and behold I was in the end zone and I caught the ball. And the scout was walking out of the stadium and he turned around and heard the crowd screaming and he said 'Well, hmm, maybe this guy can play for us.'"

Melvin said he had known he wanted to study chemistry when he came to Richmond and even considered pre-medicine, but had always been more interested in the math, physics and engineering parts of science. Melvin said he did research with Chemistry Department Chairman William Myers during his four years at Richmond and studied the steric and inductive effects of amine chemoborines, research that earned him the nickname "Larry Lab" from the rest of the football team.

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The Detroit Lions drafted Melvin in the 11th round of the NFL draft after he graduated. But during the last week of the Lions' training camp, he pulled his hamstring muscle and was released. The Dallas Cowboys picked him up for the next season, but their training camp did not begin until March 1987. He said he had planned to spend the time before training camp working as a courier for his agent, but Richmond chemistry professor Raymond Dominey, who was working at U.Va. at the time, suggested Melvin talk with U.Va. material science engineering professor Glenn Stoner.

Melvin said he had begun working as a material science engineering research assistant for Stoner shortly thereafter and had enrolled in the material science masters program at U.Va. in January 1987. After he left for the Cowboys' training camp in March, Melvin said he began to receive his lectures on video tape.

"So, by day, I'm catching footballs for 'America's Team,' and then in the evenings I'm watching material science engineering videotapes," Melvin said. "That was the hardest thing I ever tried."

Melvin re-injured his hamstring while playing for the Cowboys, which essentially ended his football career, he said. He finished his masters at U.Va. and began working at NASA Langley in Hampton, Va., he said.

While at Langley, he researched making fiber optic sensors for uses including aerospace vehicles and to sniff discreet point sensors for hydrogen detection. He had also run the X33 program, which aimed to build a reusable launch vehicle that could be brought back to Earth, refueled and sent back into space, beginning in 1993. It was during his time at Langley that Melvin first considered a career as an astronaut.

"A friend came up to me and said, 'Hey, you'd be a great astronaut,' and I said, 'Yeah, right. Whatever,'" Melvin said. "He gave me an application. I didn't fill it out."

But then, he said, a friend of his had filled out an application and been accepted to the 1996 astronaut class.

"I said to myself, 'Well, if he can get in, I can get in,'" Melvin said. He had applied to become an astronaut in 1997 and was accepted into the 1998 class. The international aspect of being an astronaut was very real, he said. He has spent a lot of time abroad in Russia, Germany, Japan and other locations. Melvin went to Russia to support its first crew going to the space station. He learned Russian in the process.

"When I was in space, we had a Russian air force pilot, a French general and another army person who was from Germany, a European Space Agency astronaut, African- American, Asian-American, a female commander," Melvin said. "So we had diversity, plus in space. And everything worked so smoothly. It's just getting along with others, various cultures, learning what the hot buttons are for getting people upset. I think it's just important that the more exposure you have to other people that don't look like you, or don't talk like you, the better off you are in working in any environment."

Melvin said since all the operations they had practiced on Earth went smoothly in space, his biggest challenge had been one he could not prepare for on Earth: using the bathroom. For the men's liquids, he said there had been a vacuum tube, but for women and everything else, there had been a normal looking toilet with foot and leg straps to keep a person from floating away. "Propulsion is propulsion," he said, laughing.

"I feel if more people could see this beautiful globe from space, there'd be no more wars," Melvin said. "And I think the more international travel and working with other people and cultures would help with the cooperation in a global sense. It would help our nation and humankind"

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