November 21, 2007, - 4:04 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
Most people never attain one dream job in a lifetime. But Leland Melvin got two. He’s now a NASA astronaut and was an NFL player. Well, sort of. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions but an injury kept him from having an NFL career. But in college, he set records on the gridiron. And he’ll be aboard the Atlantic Space Shuttle, next month.
Still, to be drafted to play pro ball and go to space is interesting and cool. Melvin apparently has a lot to give thanks for, this Thanksgiving:
Leland Melvin’s career has largely been defined by his ability to use his hands: first to catch a football and then hold onto it as he ran down the field.
Now, his professional success depends on his ability to maneuver a joystick and other controls as he wields a robotic arm on a spaceship.
Melvin is NASA’s only astronaut who is a former professional athlete, having been drafted by the Detroit Lions football team in 1986. He will make his first trip into orbit on space shuttle Atlantis, which NASA hopes to launch Dec. 6.
Melvin talked to USA TODAY last week about the thrill of being an astronaut and his injury-shortened days as a wide receiver.
“If I’d made the final 45 end roster – played in some post-season games, gotten a ring – that would be nice,” he says. But “flying in space . . . it’s one of the most amazing things I can think of.”
Melvin, 43, doesn’t fit neatly into the stereotypes of a jock or an astronaut out of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. At the University of Richmond, he set career records for receptions ‚Äî at least one pass per game ‚Äî and receiving yards. He also earned a degree in chemistry, even though his lab sessions required him to miss chunks of football practice.
Drafted in the 11th round by the Lions after graduation, Melvin tore his hamstring during pre-season practice. He was invited to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys but tore his hamstring again. His career with the NFL was over.
Thanks to his academic talents, he had other options. As he pursued pro football, Melvin kept himself afloat in part by working in a lab at NASA’s Langley Research Center. After his football dreams died, he earned a master’s degree in materials-science engineering and did research on fiber optics at Langley.
Growing up in Lynchburg, Va., the son of two school teachers, Melvin had no strong yearning to become an astronaut. That remained true after he joined NASA in 1989, until a former colleague won a spot in the astronaut corps and gave him an insider’s view of the job.
Melvin realized “the math and science (aspect) was there, the physical side was there,” he says. “So I think it was a good marriage for where I was in my life . . . It’s been great. It’s been one of the best jobs I’ve ever done.”
At a muscular 6 feet tall and 205 pounds, Melvin looks the part of a man who made his living off his speed and strength. These days, Melvin’s practices focus on the International Space Station’s robotic arm, which he will operate during Atlantis’ visit to the station.
Not every astronaut passes NASA’s tests to be an arm “driver.” The job takes immense concentration and a knack for visualizing moving objects. A careless move could slam the arm into the space station, potentially opening a hole that would allow the station’s oxygen to escape.
During his flight, Melvin will command the arm to lift a new scientific laboratory out of the shuttle’s cargo hold and install it on the station. He’ll also use the arm to move colleagues who are making spacewalks, a job so tricky that “the hairs on your neck should raise up” during the task, as he described it in an interview in 2005. . . .
Melvin waves off a question about whether being an astronaut is as lucrative as playing in the NFL.
“The benefit is the things that you’re allowed to do,” he says. He feels lucky, he says, to be “one of the few people in this world (to) leave the planet and work in the cosmos.”
If only Melvin’s shuttle (or one in the near future) went back to the moon, instead of making these expensive, endless shuttle missions that don’t break enough significant new ground.
Tags: astronaut, athlete, Dallas Cowboys, Debbie Schlussel Most, Detroit Lions, football, former professional athlete, International Space Station, Leland Melvin, Leland Melvin Now, Lynchburg, NASA's Langley Research Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Football League, NFL, player, rocket scientist, Thanksgiving, The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe, University of Richmond, USA Today, Virginia, wide receiver