Q&A: Astronaut Leland Melvin on Diversity, STEM, and Chasing Space

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Q&A: Astronaut Leland Melvin on Diversity, STEM, and Chasing Space

Leland Melvin has worn many of hats over the course of his life: NFL wide receiver, engineer, astronaut, STEM/STEAM educator, public speaker, and now, with the May 23 release of his memoir Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances, he adds “author” to that list.

Melvin has faced his share of adversity, from being cut from the Detroit Lions to suffering an ear injury during astronaut training that was supposed to have grounded him forever, but he has taken advantage of the second chances that life has presented. The doctors said he would never fly in space, yet a minister told him that he would prevail over his hearing loss, and that flying in space would be his “testimony to share with the world.” Melvin did, indeed, overcome this injury to fly in space as part of the STS-122 and STS-129 missions.

We were lucky enough to have a chance to sit down with Melvin to talk about the current administration’s priorities for NASA, STEM/STEAM outreach, diversity, and the orbital perspective.

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Paste Science: I loved your book. I’ve read a quite a few astronaut memoirs, but yours was different. Instead of being a greatest hits of your biggest spaceflight achievements, it’s a memoir of a full life. Why did you decide to focus on more than just your time at NASA?

Leland Melvin: There’s a quote I love, “The two most important days of your life are day you were born and the day you figure out why.” In this journey of figuring out my why, and receiving a prophecy about my testimony to the world, what better way to share it than through a book?

I never wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. There were all these other things that led me to getting there. If I want to help inspire kids to follow their why or determine their why, figure out what they want to do with their lives, then it has to be more than just, “I went to space and I saw Neil and Buzz on the Moon in 1969 and I had the bug then.” That wasn’t my story. That’s why there’s such a departure from the “typical”—whatever “typical” means—astronaut memoir.

Talking about the people that were really instrumental in helping me along the way, like my dad, was important. He was just an incredible, incredible person. Now that I’m [back where I grew up] in Lynchburg, people come up to me and say, “Hey!” Not that I’m an astronaut and have done all these great things, but, “Leland, your dad kept me out of jail,” or “Your mom kept me off of drugs.” I’m making these connections with people whose lives were changed by my parents, and so that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to honor my dad’s legacy by carrying that piece on. 

It’s more than just going to space and getting an orbital perspective, it’s about all the people that have been woven into this story and this journey that have helped make that difference and to keep me going. I mean, the hearing loss: I could have cratered, I could have just said “I’m out, peace!” But no, “This is your testimony to the world. You’re going to fly in space, Leland.” 

When the flight surgeons, the ones in Houston, said, “You’re never going to fly.” I mean, they were very emphatic about that. “You’re not going fly. We’re not going to let you fly because we don’t know what happened to you. And unless there’s some compelling reason as to why—unless we find some other information or data that’s in your inner ear that we could . . . do an autopsy really [laughs], we’re not going to let you fly. We have enough astronauts to fly in space, we don’t really need you to do that.”

It’s just so powerful to me and I’m finding that there are kids that are hearing my story when I talk or teachers, I just spoke to 400 teachers, they’re pre-K to third grade teachers in Orange County, this was about two weeks ago. They said, “Your story resonated with us, we can now take this back to our students and let them know that you don’t have to be a straight-A student or you don’t have to be this or that. You can reinvent yourself, you can do different things with your life.”

The lifelong learning part is the critical piece. You’re always learning. 

PS: You’ve done a lot of work with STEM/STEAM education outreach. You served as the Associate Director of Education at NASA. What do you think about the new president’s proposal to eliminate funding for the NASA Education Office in his budget?

LM: Here’s the deal. If we’re really going to help our civilization advance technologically, we have to be curious, we have to be inquisitive, we have to allow kids to be connected with the missions of these federal agencies, and non-federal agencies. Anything that you can use to get a kid inspired or motivated is really important in STEM and STEAM. If we’re going to cut the budget of the Education group that allows kids to get internships—25% of students that go to college in STEM fields either drop out or they go to a different degree because they don’t make the connection: this Intro Chemistry class, how is it helping me?

So if a freshman over the summer goes to JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and learns about the chemistry of Mars, working on the Mars Rover, they make that connection and they get inspired and motivated. A lot of that $115 million—some of it went to minority-serving universities to give students those opportunities, some of it went to internships, fellowships, and scholarships for money going directly to them, going to a NASA center and working with the researchers and scientists. 

If you’re going to really say we want to inspire women, I think there was a bill that he signed to help inspire women in STEM and also to help HCBUs, which is also in STEM, if we’re going to do that, but take the money away from NASA that’s doing that, it’s like I said in The Washington Post, talking out of both sides of your mouth. 

Let’s talk the talk and walk the walk at the same time. This whole thing about stripping the data away from the public on climate change—I don’t want to turn this into a political thing, but we have to really be cognizant of making sure we look at everything. There’s data out there that is showing us that things are happening, and we can’t put our heads in the sand and say, “It’s not happening!” I believe in jobs and in helping people get work, but we have to be serious about looking at the long-term of our planet, not just the short term. 

Think about 1968, Apollo 8, when Lovell and crew went around the moon and took that Earthrise picture. That picture started the EPA and the environmental movement because of the first time of seeing our planet from that vantage point. It was blue, with these white clouds and brown mountains. When you think about that picture in 1968, and you think about 2018 as the 50th anniversary of Earthrise, what’s going to happen 50 years from then to 2068? Will we even have oceans we can swim in or fish we can eat out of the oceans? What is going to be the state of our planet if we don’t continue to monitor and be diligent about our environment? I’m very passionate about that.

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Earthrise photo taken by Apollo 8 in 1968. Photo courtesy of NASA.

PS: You talk a lot in your memoir about being a black man surrounded by Caucasians. Do you think things have gotten better, especially for underrepresented minorities in STEM?

LM: Let’s delve into this because we both have a passion for making sure that everyone, especially our brown people, have access and opportunities—access to a quality education, access to the Internet. And then, once you have those skills, being given the opportunity. If you look at studies that have been done by so many different organizations, when the resumes come in, if you have an ethnic sounding name, a huge percentage of those go in the trash can, but if it’s a Jack or a Jane or someone who the person hiring sees as, “Oh, this person is probably very similar to me!” and so they get the jobs. That’s one thing.

The other thing is I look at the movie Hidden Figures, it was a blockbuster success of story of this African American woman from West Virginia who was brilliant and was hidden. Once we start being able to tell these stories and realize these stories resonate with the world—because it’s a great story—that we can show that the more diverse we are, the more problems we can solve. 

I just sent an article to a young girl, maybe in 10th grade, who asked this question, “Mr. Melvin, I just saw Hidden Figures with my family. Do you think that if there were no Jim Crow laws in the ‘50s and ‘60s, if there was no racism, could we have beaten the Russians to space? Could we have beaten Yuri Gagarin’s April 12, 1961 flight?” And I sent her this Scientific American article that there’s 15 years of research showing that the most incredible solutions or elegant solutions come out of the most diverse groups—racially, ethnically, sexually, gender-wise, age—whatever diversity you can throw in there, you will get the best solutions out. 

I believe if those figures were not hidden that maybe we could have beat the Russians . . . but we didn’t do that because maybe we were suppressing some of our most talented people and not bringing them to the table to help solve these problems. It’s about diversity, I think, and it’s about inclusion, and I think people are realizing it has been suppressed. Hidden Figures was one of the most incredible stories about the suppression of that for so long.

If we can get our kids inspired around something—a skateboard and a chemistry set, and bread truck I guess, got me stoked about knowing that I could build and create something with my own hands and I loved it. I was engaged in it. Getting kids to learn about digital signal processing, which is the foundation of songs that are coming out now and using these DSP chips on mixing boards, or really on laptop computers, or even on iPhones, to mix music. If they understand that those are sine waves and these are Fourier transforms and this is math that’s going on to make the latest Beyoncé hit, if they make that connection with the singing and the production and the math, they may say, “Oh, I’m going to be a sound engineer now!” “I’m going be a singer and I’m going to produce my own songs!”

Making those connections with where they are now, especially in the out of school time space is just so critical.

PS: Jumping to the space program, what do you think about where our NASA is now and our future goals to go to Mars?

LM: Right now, the current administration has proposed a $19.5 billion budget for NASA, which is the highest budget we’ve had ever, and there’s a line in there for going to Mars in 2033, whether it’s orbiting or landing, it’s just getting there with humans. Elon Musk is talking about doing that and he’s going lots of support and funding. I believe there will be humans in Martian orbit or on Mars in, I’d say, in the next 20 years.

But at the same time, I think we need to really focus on building a habitat, and this is my personal opinion, a habitat locally that we can get to and from, probably lunar, so we can test out the systems. With our other programs, we tested things out in low Earth orbit, then we went to the Moon. And so if we’re going to Mars, maybe we can test out some sort of lunar habitat that can be replicated on Mars. I think that’s where we’re going to be going. The government side and the private side kind of working together as we’ve been doing, I see that continuing. We’re paying Elon Musk to take our underwear and shirts and food and water up to the space station right now, that’s been going on for awhile with Dragon. Now he’s trying to human rate that vehicle to send people around the moon I think in 2018. 

Our Orion capsule on the government side with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, we’re looking at doing the same thing. We need to make sure we’re coordinated so we can actually use the data we’re all generating. We don’t have to compete for it—think of the movie Contact, where the world machine was built by everyone. We ended up doing this incredible thing because we came together and worked together and shared. Branson, Virgin Galactic, xcor, Blue Origin—all of these are great, great efforts to help bring this experience, this orbital perspective that I got in space, down to—maybe it’s not the masses, but it’s to a larger number of people.

PS: You’ve mentioned “the orbital perspective” a few times. What does that mean to you?

LM: My job on the STS-122 mission was to install the Columbus laboratory. I had never flown in space before, I’d never done robotics before. I remember getting the assignment, and I happened to be in Mission Control, and I met up with, it had to be like 15-20 German flight controllers that were high fiving and chest bumping me. They were just really excited about their module getting installed because their jobs depended on this. And I’ll never forget one guy, he said, “Mr. Melvin. Don’t screw it up.” 

After installing that, there was a sense of pride, and now all of Europe was connected to the space station, and Hans Schlegel and Léo Eyharts were on the mission. Léo was going to stay there for another 4 months. After we did that installation, Peggy Whitson—who’s up there now for an additional 3 months—invited us to dinner in the Russian segment [of the International Space Station]. We’re having this meal, eating all this food from around the world, and I’m looking out the window and I’m seeing that we’re flying over Virginia. And then we’re flying over Paris. And all of our respective hometowns. 

That’s when I had that cognitive shift, that moment of, “Oh my god, we’re all connected. Oh my god, the planet is so beautiful. Oh my god, what can I do to make it better when I get home?” And in coming home, the things that bothered you? They don’t bother you. The connections that you make with talking to a kid or talking to a teacher or sharing with a family member that these satellites that are up there—I have an uncle named Chandler who’s a farmer. And he said, “What is all this money being spent on NASA for?” And I said, “Well, we’re looking at how can we help you better rotate your crops with this satellite data. And if there’s blight in a forest, where is it and what’s happening? And fires, and all these things.” 

It’s really to make the lives of all these people better, and the more inspired you are about seeing your home planet, just like Lovell and crew did in 1968, seeing that Earthrise picture, I saw my orbital shiftrise image of the whole planet going around it every 90 minutes, and that was just so powerful for me.

And the other thing is that we were all there together, eating, with this smorgasbord of food, and I just felt this sense of connection with the universe. With these people who I’m depending on to save my life if something happens. And we’re all in it together. And then looking out the window, going around the planet and seeing all these things, I just felt that we’re all so connected.

PS: What’s next for you?

LM:With the books coming out [Chasing Space is being released simultaneously with a young reader’s edition], I’m going to try and do some more stuff with experiential learning with my website, but also getting content out for teachers and students to be motivated to do experiential activities. I’m working with an organization to set up a STEAM school and full astronaut training, and also a group of international astronauts to help the planet.

I also want to share my story as widely as I can to help inspire others, especially young boys and young girls of color that may not have had opportunities or maybe haven’t seen people who look like them in these these positions. The movement lately with Katherine Johnson to show girls this movie has been phenomenal from an outreach standpoint. There’s so many more kids who believe they can do this now because they saw someone who looked like them. I see Indian girls who meet Sunny [astronaut Sunita Williams] and say, “Oh my god, that’s Sunny Williams!” She’s like a rock star. And I always say, “Hey, she’s my classmate!” And telling young girls, “Go look up Peggy Whitson, she’s in space right now. Go look up Sunny Williams, she ran the Boston Marathon on the treadmill in space. She’s a helicopter pilot. She’s done this, she’s done that. Look what she did, you can do it too.” Just sharing these stories of my friends is so powerful.

The other thing I’m working with is—you know makers.com, MAKERS Women? They’re releasing MAKERS Men this month, and I’m one of the MAKERS Men to support women. It’s just trying to get people thinking of how we all work together as one family, one interracial, intercultural, intergender, intereverything family of people trying to help advance our civilization. 

Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances by Leland Melvin releases on May 23 from Amistad Books.

Top photo by Joi Ito CC BY 2.0

Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor and giant space/sci-fi geek.

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