Inspiring future space explorers: Q&A with former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin

Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin flew to space twice and led the agency's Office of Education from 2010 to 2014.
Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin flew to space twice and led the agency's Office of Education from 2010 to 2014. (Image credit: NASA)

Leland Melvin has lived a very interesting life. 

He was a star athlete in his younger years, breaking records at the University of Richmond as a wide receiver and getting selected by the Detroit Lions in the 1986 National Football League draft. Injuries soon derailed his gridiron dreams, however, so Melvin sought out even more rarefied air — a career as a NASA astronaut.

Melvin began working at NASA as an engineer in 1989 and became a member of the astronaut corps in 1998. He reached orbit twice, flying to the International Space Station on the space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-122 mission in February 2008 and again on STS-129 in November 2009. In that latter year, he also orchestrated the most beloved official NASA astronaut photo of all time, a playful shot that cedes the spotlight to Melvin's two affectionate dogs, Jake and Scout.

Related: How Leland Melvin went from the NFL to space (exclusive video)

He then transitioned to a career in education. Melvin led NASA's Office of Education from October 2010 through his retirement from the agency in February 2014; he continues to inspire young people to get interested in science, technology and engineering today.

For example, Melvin is a teacher for the "Starcourse" series organized by Varsity Tutors, which provides a variety of online educational opportunities for K-12 students. In fact, the former astronaut is hosting a free, 45-minute Starcourse talk called "Build a Rocket Racer with an Astronaut" on Tuesday evening (Oct. 27) at 7 p.m. EDT (2300 GMT). 

"In this class, students will design, build, test and optimize their own rocket racers, all under the live guidance of an astronaut who has used rocket science to launch into space," Varsity Tutors states in a description of the course, which it says is designed for K-8 students. "Aspiring rocket scientists will learn about position, velocity, and acceleration, as well as the methods that aerospace engineers use to make rockets lighter, faster and safer."

If you're interested, you can sign up for the class here. recently caught up with Melvin to chat about his life, his spaceflight experiences and what he hopes to teach all the youngsters out there. What does it feel like to launch into space?

Leland Melvin: Imagine you're in a sports car going about 100 mph [160 kph]. Our acceleration was 1,000 times more intense. We were pinned in our seats, feeling three times our weight on our chests. I remember laboring to breathe during the two minutes before the solid rocket boosters were finally jettisoned. At that point, I thought, "OK, we're heading to space." A minute later, we reached 10,000 mph [16,100 kph], rocketing over the East Coast of the United States with the Atlantic Ocean shimmering in the background. Another five minutes passed as we reached 17,500 mph [28,160 kph], fast enough to shut off the engines and jettison the external tank.

NASA's space shuttle program in pictures: A tribute How did your spaceflight experiences change you? What were the best or most memorable parts?

Melvin: There are so many unforgettable aspects of life in space, including the experiments, the robotics and the spacewalks, but I think my most memorable moment took place when Peggy [Whitson, commander of the space station's Expedition 16] and her crew invited us to have dinner over in the service module. "You guys bring the vegetables, we'll bring the meat," they said, and we all congregated around the small table, with some floating above and others below. There we were, French, German, Russian, Asian American, African American, listening to Sade's silky vocals and having a meal in space. Out the window we could see Afghanistan, Iraq and other troubled spots. Two hundred and forty miles [386 kilometers] above those strife-torn places, we sat in peace with people we once counted among our nation's enemies, bound by a common commitment to explore space for the benefit of all humanity. It was one of the most inspiring moments of my life. That day, I gained a newfound perspective on how it's possible for different people to live and work together. Definitely needed to bring that hope and optimism back home, to planet Earth. Are you optimistic about the future of human space exploration? Why or why not?  

Melvin: When I think about the future, I'm optimistic because I see kids that are inspired by exploration, especially when they are wearing their blue, orange or white space suits modeling after me and my colleagues. They talk about working together. They talk about rockets. They talk about taking their dogs or cats to space. A young girl named Mila in her white flight suit points her finger to the cosmos with power and confidence that she will be the first commander on a Mars mission one day. I know there is talent in all postal codes. We just have to give our kids the access, opportunity and belief through inspiration to make their dreams a reality. Varsity Tutors is helping me do my part, to inspire the next generation. Why did you decide to do this class, and what do you hope kids get out of it? 

Melvin: Both of my parents were educators and I have seen the power a great teacher has to inspire the next generation. I saw the power of the Varsity Tutors classroom being able to reach thousands of students, and I wanted to share my experiences to help inspire them to believe in something and go for it, just like my parents did in our community. How did you get inspired to become an astronaut? 

Melvin: Because I never had a burning desire to become an astronaut, I hadn't spent my teenage years avidly following the career trajectories of John Glenn and Alan Shepard and wondering what I had to do to be just like them. At least I didn't before my friend Charlie applied and flew into NASA Langley [Research Center in Virginia] on a T-38 military training jet with astronaut legend John Young. I saw what my buddy was doing, flying jets and training to go off into the cosmos, and said, "If he can do it, then I can too." I then focused on that next goal, got inspired and became an astronaut.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.