On the advice of a colleague, Melvin applied for and was admitted to NASA's astronaut training corps in 1998. He says that it's a toss up which boot camp is tougher.
"In the astronaut corps, you have a lot of balls in the air—it's all about time management," he says. His training regimen included hours of class work, learning to fly jets, instruction on all the controls for the shuttle and the ISS, plus wilderness survival lessons. "And you're trying to learn to speak Russian at the same time, too," he adds.
A decade after joining the corps, Melvin's number was finally called to voyage into space aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which launched from Cape Canaveral on February 7. Melvin traveled some 5,296,832 miles (8,524,425 kilometers) and orbited earth over 200 times during his nearly two-week mission.
The hand-eye coordination he'd honed on the football field was put to the test during astronaut training, as well as when he helped attach the Columbus laboratory to the ISS. But maneuvering arms—either his own or those belonging to a robot—aren't the only parallels Melvin draws between playing football and space exploration.
The success of a football team or a crew of astronauts can hinge on decisions that take place in milliseconds, he says. And it often takes teamwork to make the right choices.
"In football, the quarterback and the wide receiver have an unspoken language," Melvin says. "It's the same with the mission commander and the pilot, or the mission specialist and the pilot. Sometimes you're changing plays on the fly and you've got to have that kind of telepathy."
It's been a twenty-year path from the Detroit Lions' cut list to the ISS and back to earth for Melvin. He's hoping that the wait will be shorter until his next space trip.
"I'm at the back of the line right now," he says, noting that the future of NASA's manned spaceflight is somewhat in flux. The new Constellation program that will usher in a new space vehicle (the Orion module) and a new rocket, called Ares, is running into design and budgetary difficulties. "It's hard to say when they'll be going up," Melvin says, "but maybe by 2014 or 2015," per NASA's timetable.
Those target dates may be a bit optimistic, however: On July 31, a prototype Orion module crashed in Arizona when one of its parachutes failed to deploy.
"Hey, it's a tough business," Melvin says. "You've got to take one step after the next." Just like when you're running for the end zone.