Leland Melvin skyrocketed to a career as a NASA astronaut, serving on missions to the International Space Station.
But the path was arduous, and at times, traumatic for the Lynchburg native.
Melvin delivered the keynote speech Monday at Roanoke City Public Schools’ annual convocation. He told Roanoke teachers he had to overcome trauma as a child and a disability as an adult to reach outer space, crediting his parents and other mentors for helping him along the way.
Melvin also lauded Roanoke’s trauma-informed program, a systemwide approach to education that focused on how adverse experiences can affect students. Roanoke started its initiative a year ago. School systems across the country have been adopting similar methods.
“This trauma-informed approach is priceless. It’s saving lives. It’s showing kids they can rise and do anything they put their minds to,” Melvin said. “One of those kids who you inspire and motivate … may be wearing this blue flight suit going to Mars one day. They might be exploring the universe because of what you’ve done in your classroom.”
Held at the Berglund Center, the convocation’s theme was “Mission Accepted.” Members of the Patrick Henry and William Fleming high school marching bands performed songs from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars.” The school system played a video that featured students answering questions about the cosmos. The school division, which had an enrollment of 13,700 last school year, has 2,200 staff members, including approximately 1,000 teachers.
Melvin discussed his journey from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to NASA, with a brief stint as an NFL wide receiver.
Melvin said he was a “skinny kid with a lot of trauma,” who endured abuse by a neighbor at the age of 5. The same year, Melvin said, he saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
Melvin, now 55, said he originally dreamed of a career in tennis. He said he was inspired by the work of Robert Walter Johnson, the first black physician to practice at Lynchburg General Hospital, and the founder of the American Tennis Association’s junior development program for African American children. Johnson coached tennis legends Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.
But Melvin soon realized his passion for science and the gridiron. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Richmond. An NFL team drafted Melvin in 1986, but released him prior to the season after an injury. Melvin tried out for another team but suffered another injury and was cut again.
Melvin earned his master’s degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia in 1991. He’d already started working at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton before completing his degree. His job included building fiber optic sensors for measurements on aerospace vehicles.
“I never imagined being an astronaut,” he said.
A few years into his career, a friend suggested Melvin apply for the job anyway.
But after another friend was accepted, Melvin filed his paperwork, and NASA selected him in 1998. Melvin pointed to a photo of a few dozen astronauts on the big screens. “A kid who went through trauma, 45 miles away from Roanoke, is in that picture,” Melvin said.
After years of intense training, Melvin had to demonstrate his ability to fly a space mission by wearing a pressurized suit in an underwater simulation. Something went horribly wrong.
Melvin said he lost his hearing during the training session in 2001 after a crucial device was left out of his helmet by mistake. Although he eventually regained hearing in his right ear, doctors deemed Melvin unfit for a mission.
He moved to NASA’s education department in Washington, D.C., to work in a program that selects teachers to become astronauts. Shortly after, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated while attempting to reenter the atmosphere in 2003, killing seven astronauts who were also Melvin’s friends.
Melvin said he was inspired by the father of David Brown, one of the astronauts who died. “He told me, Leland, we must continue to fly in space to honor their legacy,” Melvin said.
NASA didn’t give up on Melvin becoming an astronaut, he said. After close testing and monitoring, Melvin received a waiver that allowed him to fly in space.
Melvin flew twice on the space shuttle Atlantis, serving as a mission specialist to complete projects on the International Space Station. Each trip, one in 2008 and the other in 2009, spanned more than 10 days.
Video clips and photos of Melvin floating and working inside the space shuttle with his peers drew applause from the teachers. Melvin encouraged them to share his story in their classes, and remind them of his Virginia roots.
Following Melvin’s speech, Superintendent Rita Bishop asked educators from Lucy Addison Middle to stand as she told the audience about her plan to reopen the school’s aerospace program.
School officials have discussed the project over the past year. The program first launched in the early 1990s through federal grants. The school system built a replica space shuttle and installed mission control apparatus at Lucy Addison Middle. But the school system shuttered the program after it lost funding.
The last time Lucy Addison Middle had an aerospace teacher was the 2004-2005 school year, although the aerospace lab was used for summer programs through 2008.
“There’s a lot of history still in those rooms,” Bishop said.
The superintendent said she’s determined to restart the program and open it to students at Lucy Addison Middle and throughout the school system. It could also serve as a field trip venue as part of Roanoke’s science, technology, engineering and math curriculum, Bishop said.
Roanoke will need “a tremendous amount of fundraising” to restore the aerospace program, Bishop said. Earlier this month Bishop told the Roanoke City Council the project needs about $2.5 million before it can open.
Along with the program’s return, Bishop set a long -term goal for Lucy Addison Middle.
“I’d like to see an Addison kid on a Mars mission,” Bishop said.
Roanoke students return for the first day of school Aug. 20.