Leland Melvin has very nearly been a member of two exclusive clubs: the National Football League (NFL) and the NASA astronaut corps. The first opportunity fizzled before it got very far. The second, however, recently afforded him a roundtrip to the International Space Station (ISS).
The former NFL draft pick in February journeyed into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis—an opportunity he had prepared for since beginning his training in 1998. The flight crew's goal: attach the European Space Agency's Columbus research laboratory to the ISS.
During the mission, Melvin played a key role in docking the 23 by 15 foot (7 meter by 4.6 meter) lab onto the space station, a task that involved operating robotic arms on both the shuttle and the ISS. "It was like playing the ultimate video game," Melvin says about his time manipulating the two joysticks that control the dual mechanical arms.
That wasn't the only thrill that Melvin experienced during his 13-day foray into space. He also had the pleasure of observing the odd eating habits of people in a zero-gravity environment: "There were people floating along the ceiling," he recalls, "and coming down like a bat to get the food."
He and his crewmates traveled at 25 times the speed of sound when Space Shuttle Atlantis reentered the earth's atmosphere, generating a 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius), mile-long (1.6 kilometer) trail of plasma. "You just pray that the heat shields are doing their thing," he says.
And of course, there was the matter of readjusting to earth's gravity once Melvin safely reached the ground. "You feel 10 times your [actual] weight," he says. His body's natural balancing systems needed a few days to recalibrate, too—he remembers feeling like he was doing somersaults when he tried to take his boots off.
Melvin, 44, is still wide-eyed about his adventures above the earth. "It was one of the most amazing things," he says "just being able to look out that [shuttle] window."
Yet when he graduated college in 1986 he never dreamed he would one day float in space. At that time, the only arms he was looking to maneuver were his own—toward a spiraling football and a ticket to the NFL.
Leland Melvin loved sports while growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia. He remembers hauling in football passes from his father, a schoolteacher, when he was in the fourth grade. A gifted athlete who possessed outstanding quickness, Melvin was an early standout during his youth football days while in elementary school.
He remained a football star while a student at Heritage High School, though his chance at playing college ball nearly slipped through his fingers. In 1981 during his school's homecoming game Melvin's coach called for a long bomb play to his speedy senior receiver in a bid to win the tightly contested game. Alas, the normally sure-handed wideout dropped the ball in the end zone.
In that instance, Melvin felt his status plummet from potential hero to loser. But his coach saw things differently. "I went back to the sidelines to get the next play, and the coach grabbed me by the helmet and said, 'Leland, run the same thing. Catch the ball this time,'" Melvin recalls.