Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin aims to help the next generation reach for the stars

Mission Specialist Leland Melvin signals that it's go time for the launch of space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-122 mission while he dons the launch and entry suit.
Mission Specialist Leland Melvin signals that it's go time for the launch of space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-122 mission while he dons the launch and entry suit. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin is working to help the next generation reach the same lofty heights that he did.

Melvin, a retired NASA astronaut, completed two space shuttle missions to the International Space Station during his tenure, one in 2008 and the other in 2009. But in the years since then, Melvin has been hard at work following in his parents' footsteps. 

Looking to the example set by his parents, who were both educators, Melvin told Space.com, he's been connecting with youth around the world through a series of free online classes he teaches with the platform Varsity Tutors. 

"I think the most rewarding thing that I have gotten from flying in space is, you know, coming back and empowering other people to believe that they can do this, too," Melvin said.

Melvin's next Varsity Tutors class (opens in new tab), called "Your Astronaut Questions, Answered," will take place on Dec. 27.

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

"I'm just trying to honor her legacy, because she was a school teacher," Melvin said about his late mother. "I think about, you know, the kids that were trying to inspire the little girls … My mom's looking now; she's proud. She's happy that I'm trying to carry on her legacy." 

Melvin shared that he moved back to his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, and "people seek me out in my hometown to tell me, not that, 'Hey, you're a great astronaut,' … they tell me that 'Your father taught me' or 'Your mother taught me.'" 

He also shared the story of coming home from one of his spaceflights and attending a parade in Houston. Melvin shared that he was on a fire truck with former astronaut Robert Kirby in the parade, and "he taps me on the shoulder and points back to these two little boys, two little African American boys with their dad, and they both have on … orange pumpkin suits. And their dad points, taps them and says, 'Look right there,'" Melvin said. 

Former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin reads to first and third grade students from the book “The Moon Over Star” at Ferebee-Hope Elementary School in Washington, D.C. while serving as NASA's associate administrator for education in 2011. Melvin retired from NASA in 2014. (Image credit: Carla Cioff/NASA)

"It was almost as though the father injected rocket fuel into their little bodies, because they just started spinning, they saw someone who looked like them. They had on their flight suits, we had on our flight suits. And it was instantly one of these moments where we locked eyes and we made it 'mission possible' for those kids," he said.

Melvin shared some more examples of times when he's seen the power of inspiration with his very eyes. He also revealed how impactful it has been that he's been able to share these stories of space and science with underrepresented communities and kids. 

For example, he talked about a school group with which he was able to share a song beamed back from Mars.

"These kids," Melvin said, "they're black and brown kids that historically have been underserved, underrepresented, no access to opportunity and a lot of times no belief in themselves … We were able to instill that belief in them through that moment." 

"Breaking down all those things that can help them see the pathway is so important. So important," Melvin said. "We want kids to dream. And in those dreams, they will solve the problems to saving our planet, to helping our climate, to bring us together."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.