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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Football

From the Gridiron to the International Space Station: Leland Melvin's Fantastic Voyage

Sidelined by an injury, NFL draft pick trades in football for a career as an astronaut
Leland Melvin



NASA

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.

This time, Melvin managed to elude his defender and catch the game-winning touchdown pass—as well as the eye of a scout from the University of Richmond's football team who was on his way to the exit after witnessing Melvin's botched first attempt.

"I guess he heard the crowd roar and saw me doing a little dance in the end zone after the second try," Melvin says. "He figured he'd give me a shot."

Melvin entered college in 1982 to play wide receiver for the Richmond Spiders. He majored in chemistry and taught himself to prioritize his studies over his sport.

"When you go to play sports in college, [the first thing] to ask your coach is: If you play on the team, can you still get the degree that you want?" advises Melvin, who now co-manages NASA's educational outreach program. "You come into school as student-athletes, not athlete-students."

Former Richmond linebacker Rafe Wilkinson still remembers his teammate's focus on academics, noting that Melvin was occasionally late or would even miss practice because he was busy hitting the books. His reputation as a scholar-athlete went well beyond his teammates: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) named Melvin an honorable mention to its Division I Academic All-American squad in both 1984 and 1985.

Melvin not only worked hard, he played hard. He still holds all-time receiving records at Richmond with 198 receptions for 2,669 yards (2,441 meters) and captained the team during his senior year.

He was also the go-to-guy in clutch situations—like tough third downs. "Melvin had a real knack for finding an opening [in the defense's coverage]," says Wilkinson, who is now president of Richmond-based Old Dominion Security Company.

Melvin's success on the field paid off—the Detroit Lions picked him in the eleventh round of the 1986 NFL Draft.

But, his pro football career proved to be short-lived. Melvin pulled his hamstring badly during preseason training, limiting his ability to compete for a coveted spot on the team—and he failed to make the final cut of 45. He later reported to the Dallas Cowboys for spring training, and was still hoping to play in the pros when he was again sidelined by a hamstring injury.

There wasn't going to be a future in football for Leland Melvin. But when one door closed, another opened. "It set me up perfectly to go back to school," he says, citing a chance encounter with a friend and mentor who steered the ailing wide receiver toward academia.

Between tryouts for the Lions and Cowboys, Raymond Dominey, a chemistry professor at Richmond, turned Melvin on to materials science. The professor had a hunch that Melvin might like the emerging field, which Dominey describes as wedding "pure chemistry with engineering."

"I knew Leland was very motivated," he says. "I got a sense from him that he wanted to do something that had real relevance."

Dominey recommended that Melvin meet with a materials scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (U.Va.), where he had previously taught. Melvin became a research assistant and in early 1987 enrolled in U.Va.'s graduate program in materials science engineering. At first, he continued training for the NFL, but he was back in Charlottesville that summer after failing to complete Dallas's spring training program.

In 1989, while working toward his master's degree—which he completed in 1991—Melvin took a job as a researcher at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. There, he did work on fiber optics and prototyping sensors for rovers. He also participated in a project to develop a reusable vehicle for launching space shuttles—the experimental X-33 craft—in the mid-1990s.

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.

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