It would have cost police to stop former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin his space career before he began.
Melvin was never afraid to go into space on the two missions of the space shuttle Atlantis to help build the International Space Station, and he never knew what would happen when the police stopped him.
Melvin, who is Black, said, “I’ve been on this rocket with millions of pounds from payment and not once have been afraid to go into space.” “I didn’t even know when the police officers stopped me … I started to sweat and grabbed the steering wheel hard.”
“Every father in the black community had a conversation with his son to tell them that if an officer stops you, you know, you take over, which is 10-2 (your hands are at the wheel), look straight ahead,” he added. “You tell the officer, you know, you’re really respectful, and she says you’re trying to get to the obvious things.”
Melvin spoke on Monday during a session celebrating black lives in the space industry during the 2020 Summit of Virtual Humans to Mars Sponsored Explore Mars, A non-profit organization that advocates for human exploration of Mars.
Committee members – who shared their personal experiences and discussed the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests – shared the former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, NASA Deputy Director for Commercial Lunar Payload Services, Camille Allen, and Daniel Wood, director of the Space Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute Media Lab. For technology
Melvin still remembers one traffic stop when he was a student at Heritage High School in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he graduated in 1982.
“I was in a car with my girlfriend and a police officer rolled up for us,” Melvin said. He took her out of the car and told her that I raped her because he wanted me to go to prison.
“And you know, when black men get into the prison system, they never go out and have a second chance. I was going to college on a scholarship and I want to major in chemistry.”
Melvin urged people to make sure they were not part of the problem by contributing to racism, and asked people to rate what they were doing to harm them and how they could help combat racism.
The way to space
Thankfully, this pause did not hamper his career. Melvin ended up logging more than 565 hours in space, but space wasn’t his first choice.
During the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969, Melvin said he was the “antenna engineer,” carrying the antennas to his parents while they watched him.
And the next day all the kids in the neighborhood said, ‘Do you want to be an astronaut? “No, I don’t see someone who looks like me,” Melvin recalls.
Five blocks away from where Melvin grew up, Arthur Ashe learned how to play tennis. Ashe, the only black man to have won singles titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and Australian Open, became a professional in 1969. Ashe was also the first black player to be selected for the United States team in the Davis Cup.
“My father spoke about his perseverance in sports and his intelligence,” Melvin said. “I want you to be like him.” It wasn’t until I got to NASA, when one of my friends said, “You’re going to be an amazing astronaut.”
Files didn’t fill out an application until his friend Charlie Camarda enrolled in the astronaut program. “If this guy gets in, I can, and that’s when I applied.”
Melvin was recruited in 1986 to play in the National Football League for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys but pulled his hamstrings and didn’t end up playing any regular season matches.
In 1989, he began work at NASA’s Langley Research Center on the Division of Non-Destructive Evaluation Sciences’ fiber optic sensors group, according to NASA. He was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1998.
In addition to his work as an astronaut, Melvin also headed the NASA Education Program, co-chairs the White House federal coordination of the STEM Education Task Force and chaired the International Council for Space Education.
Melvin learns of George Floyd’s death while in Florida to launch NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken On board the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
“I see this black man running out of his life, saying he can’t breathe,” Melvin said. “And when I heard him calling his mother, then I started crying because I thought of my mother. I thought if this was me, as being the life I’m spending my life on.”
Floyd’s death when former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes was in sharp contrast to the feat of firing American astronauts from American soil at American missiles for the first time since 2011.
“If we can (send people to the International Space Station) then we can do anything. We can fix these problems.”
This leads to a necessity for diversity, Melvin said.
Melvin said the “aha” moment in space came unexpectedly. He predicted that would happen because he helped install the European Space Agency’s Columbus Laboratory on the International Space Station in 2008.
But it wasn’t until after NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson invited Melvin to the Russian portion of the station to share a meal. Melvin said the crew included astronauts of Russian, French, German, African American and Asian American descent, and was hosted by Whitson – the space station’s first female commander.
“We were breaking bread at 17,500 miles an hour, wandering around the planet every 90 minutes. And that was when my head exploded, and I had this diver from our planet and looking at it, and I get this thing called orbital perspective.”
It is something that astronauts acquire as they look at our planet as a whole.
“I think that as a civilization we need to take this thing that we put into space as astronauts,” he said. “We know that if we don’t work together as a team, and we are one of the most diverse teams in space, then (we will lose).”
Working together is the only way Melvin believes humanity can survive on this planet, return to the moon and reach Mars.
“The way we do it is through the right perspective. We bring this perspective back to the home from space, to return to space as a civilization of diverse people,” he said. “It’s a perspective together, that we work together, live together, and change the universe together.”