How Astronaut Leland Melvin Went from the NFL to Space (Exclusive Video)

The road to space was a long one for former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, who charts his course from the NFL to outer space in an exclusive new video, and urges retirees to always keep learning.

"I remember this quote, and it said the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why," Melvin says in the new YouTube video produced by AARP, shared exclusively with ahead of its official release tomorrow (Feb. 27).

"It's never too late to figure out why you were born," Melvin continues. "Once you start answering that question, that could be at 95. Let's say you live to 100. You have five years to live out this passion, this why." [Astronaut Peggy Whitson Talks Aging & Spaceflight (Video)]

Melvin himself is no stranger to transformation. He remembers watching Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take the first walk on the moon in 1969. But Melvin, an African-American, said he didn't dream of becoming an astronaut. 

All American astronauts in the 1960s were white; the first African-American, Guy Bluford, didn't fly until 1983. As a child, Melvin instead planned to be like Arthur Ashe, the first African-American man ranked the No. 1 tennis player in the world. 

"I saw someone who looked like me, and I was told he had great character, discipline and all these things," Melvin recalled. Ashe also achieved his fame at a time when African-Americans were still being hanged in the Deep South, Melvin added.

Melvin played football for the University of Richmond Spiders in Virginia in the 1980s, where he had a decorated career as a wide receiver. But shortly after he was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the NFL, an injured hamstring cut short his professional football career.

As Melvin recounts for the video, he had a backup plan. He went to graduate school and worked hard at becoming a scientist, which earned him a career in NASA. He worked with African-American idols such as mathematician Katherine Johnson (who was later featured in the 2016 film "Hidden Figures") and astronaut Charlie Bolden, who went on to become the first permanent African-American NASA administrator.

Melvin later leveraged his scientific experience at NASA to apply for the astronaut program. He was selected as an astronaut in 1998, but his road to space wasn't easy. Although Melvin doesn't mention this in the video, he temporarily lost his hearing during astronaut training and was grounded. 

His hearing eventually returned, however, and he flew on the space shuttle missions STS-122 (2008) and STS-129 (2009). After Melvin left the corps, he became NASA's associate administrator for the Office of Education until his retirement in 2014. He continues public advocacy and educational work to this day, in retirement.

"No matter what gifts that you've been blessed to have, lifelong learning and reinvention can also take the gifts that you have, [and] enhance them in a way that you can share them with the next generation of explorers," Melvin said in the AARP video.

He said that in his 50s, he continues learning something daily. He even learns something from his dog, he said. Melvin then recounted the story behind a viral picture that showed Melvin's two rescue dogs jumping on him during an official NASA portrait session in 2009. He snuck the dogs past the NASA Johnson Space Center guard hut that morning, he recalled.

"I come out, sit down, they [the dogs] start running over to me," Melvin said of his photo session. Melvin instructed the NASA photographer to start shooting. "Jake jumped up and was like, in my ear, and Scout was 'What's up,' you know? That's the picture that at one point, I think, broke the internet."

Scout and Jake have since passed away, but the portrait of them graces the cover of Melvin's 2017 book, "Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances."

Melvin worked with AARP as part of its "Spinoffs" video series, which discusses how individuals follow their passions in their later years.

"Melvin has taken his wide range of life experiences and forged a career for himself as a public figure," AARP representatives said in a statement. "In honor of Black History Month, we want to tell the inspiring story of Melvin, from country boy to the national spotlight. AARP pays tribute to Leland Melvin, a man who is living his best life after 50. AARP empowers people to choose how they live as they age."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: