Former NASA astronaut and National Football League wide receiver Leland Melvin often uses the Latin phrase “ad astra” as a sign-off greeting. It translates into “to the stars,” but the more complete phrase is “Per aspera ad astra,” which means “through hardships to the stars”—a phrase that suits him well.
On Nov. 13, at the Memorial Chapel, Melvin described his path to outer space in a talk titled “The Right Stuff Is the Never-Give-Up Stuff.” Sponsored by Associated Students of the University of Redlands Convocations and Lectures, the event drew an enthusiastic crowd of U of R students, alumni, staffers, parents, and local space enthusiasts, including many children.
Melvin was a black child in Lynchburg, Virginia, as both the civil rights movement and space exploration were burgeoning. Although he was the child of two educators, when he watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon he never imagined he too could become an astronaut. “I [didn’t] see someone who looked like me [up there].”
He did have his homegrown heroes. Arthur Ashe—the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open—lived five blocks away. His father was a fan of Ashe’s character, discipline, intelligence, and athleticism. “I wanted to be Arthur Ashe,” Melvin said.
Melvin was also inspired by his parents. His father turned a bread delivery truck into their summer camper—an escape pod out of Virginia: “It showed me what it meant to be an explorer, at a very early age.” After his mother gave him an “age-inappropriate, non-OSHA-certified chemistry set,” he set about creating explosions in their living room and, in the process, realized he could be a chemist.
He received a scholarship to play football at the University of Richmond and graduated with a degree in chemistry, after which he was drafted to the Detroit Lions, then the Dallas Cowboys. However, injuries prevented him from playing major league games.
“So,” he said, “I did what any other ex-NFL player does. I applied to NASA.”
But, before he even flew in a rocket, he sustained a serious ear injury while training due to equipment failure; at the time, doctors told him he would never fly in space.
Instead of giving up, Melvin kept working. After he recovered, he served aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist on mission STS-122 (2008) and STS-129 (2009), helping to construct the International Space Station. Melvin eventually spent 24 years at NASA; he is the only person drafted into the National Football League to have flown in space. (His Lions jersey, which he brought to space on a mission, is displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
Melvin spoke at length about his time in space, and answered questions for 40 minutes. (His best meal in space? Chocolate pudding made by a French chef. What did they listen to in space? Sade’s “Smooth Operator.”)
When a student asked, “What was most amazing part about going to space?,” Melvin replied that it was both seeing the planet from afar (“We saw a sunrise and a sunset every 45 minutes.”) and working with astronauts from all over the world for a common goal “much bigger than ourselves, and helping advance civilization.”
Melvin has served as co-chair of the White House’s Federal Coordination in STEM Education Task Force and as NASA Associate Administrator for Education. He was the United States representative and chair of the International Space Education Board (ISEB), a global collaboration on learning in space. Now, he uses his story as an athlete, astronaut, scientist, and engineer to help inspire the next generation of explorers. His advice for Redlands students? “The most critical thing is that you have this liberal arts education; know that you can do anything. Anything. Don’t give up on your goals.”
One U of R student, Shira Griffith ’23, will remember the talk for a long time: “My dad is a big space guy, so I texted him to come … I learned a lot. I thought the talk was great. Sharing this experience with my dad made it even better.”
Her father, Chris Griffith, added, “It's always great to hear the perspective of anyone who has been to space, who undergoes a radical transformation [to truly understand that] we have one planet and we have to take care of it—and that we have to continue exploring. It was worth it to drive to Redlands to be reminded of that and see my daughter!”