When astronaut Leland Melvin set out on a tour to promote his new memoir last week, he brought a piece of home with him.
Melvin, a 1982 graduate of Heritage High School who moved back to Lynchburg after retiring from NASA in 2014, collaborated with several area residents to turn one of his photographs, taken from space, into a jacket he can wear during appearances to promote “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances.”
The book was released Tuesday by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, along with a young readers’ edition that comes with a set of do-it-yourself experiments kids can try at home.
Shaun Spencer-Hester, director of the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, made the custom jacket for Melvin, an old classmate at Heritage with whom she connected after he moved back to town. Spencer-Hester was a senior when Melvin was a freshman, so the joke goes that he knew who she was but not vice versa.
Local photographer Susan Saandholland helped them convert the image in Photoshop so it could be printed on fabric, and Cotton Connection, on Main Street, did some monogramming work on the finished product.
The actual printing process was done in New York, but that was only because they couldn’t get it to work out anywhere locally.
“Leland is so funny,” Spencer-Hester said last week. “After a while, he was like, ‘Well, Shaun, what am I going to wear underneath the jacket? I need a shirt.’ [It was] the … jacket, which led to the lightning shirt, which led to a custom scarf for his mother.”
“Leland didn’t have to use local people,” she added. “He knows people all over the world. But he gave it to his community, and it grew from this community and really was an exciting project for us all to be involved in.”
That Lynchburg connection is an important part of Melvin’s life and takes a central place in his book.
It charts his early life in the Hill City to college at the University of Richmond, where he majored in chemistry, to brief stints with two NFL teams before he devoted himself to his studies full time, earning a master’s in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia and landing a job with NASA.
“I had never written a book before. I’d done technical papers and things,” Melvin said in mid-May while sitting in his loft apartment in downtown Lynchburg.
“But to have this thing about me and Lynchburg and researching my mom and dad and all of these people in our lives was very cathartic to me. Especially when I moved back to Lynchburg, I had one day with my father [before he passed away]. … I wanted to make sure I honored him in the right way in here, too. It was very important.”
In one passage, Melvin said he writes about “looking down from space at Virginia and thinking about, you know, it’s Sunday. There are people down there playing in the park. And I’m sure I looked up from the park, wondering … what’s up there? But I never would’ve imagined me flying in space, and coming over Lynchburg.”
But the book is not a straight memoir either. Melvin bounces around, offering up bits of local and national history along with research, much of it relating to the ideas of grit, perseverance and what it means to be successful and rise above life’s challenges.
“One of the [goals] with this book is to help people see that, you know, my life wasn’t perfect,” Melvin said. “I did have parents who were inspirational and powerful but, you know, I had a lot of setbacks. And it’s trying to have that long-range vision, out on the horizon, and dreams. Being able to give kids dreams. Some of the kids don’t dream, because of their environment. And they have that hopelessness.
“That’s something that I really, really wanted to do in the book. Not just talk about what I’ve done.”
The book’s second chapter offers a brief history lesson about Lynchburg’s Pierce Street. Melvin writes about various residents, like Spencer-Hester’s grandmother, Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, and her father, Chauncey, a black aviator whose accomplishments helped lead to the creation of the Tuskegee Airmen — and who, Melvin points out, made it possible for him to fly, too, all those years later — as well as Dr. Robert Johnson, a Hall of Fame tennis coach known for working with Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, among others.
“I think the Lynchburg history, that’s part of who he is,” Spencer-Hester said. “He talks about that a lot. He comes from this small town and he … becomes this astronaut. It really is quite a story.”
Melvin retired from NASA in 2014, after two spaceflights and four years working in the agency’s education department.
Now 53, Melvin said he felt the pull of home, and family. His father, Deems Melvin, was sick at the time.
“I wanted to come home and help,” he said. “… I just felt like his son needed to be home.”
His father passed away in February 2014, a day after Melvin moved home.
But he stuck around, feeling those ties to the area where he grew up, where his mother and sister still live, and where he’s part of a community that’s known him all his life.
To hear Melvin tell it, being an astronaut — one who is on a first-name basis with people like Pharrell Williams and Quincy Jones and whose official astronaut photo with his dogs continues to go viral every time a new crop of animal lovers discovers it — is only part of his identity.
In Lynchburg, he’s also the son of Grace and Deems Melvin, educators who made their mark on the community during their years teaching at Linkhorne Middle School.
“I think the coolest thing was when I got back here … after the funeral, I would go to Market at Main. I’d go to restaurants around here. People would say, ‘Hey, are you that astronaut?’” Melvin said. “… And then they go, ‘Well, your dad taught me in middle school. And if it hadn’t been for your dad, I don’t know what I would’ve done.’ Or ‘Your mom kept me from getting pregnant, at Linkhorne. She cared about me. She taught me how to cook.’
“So that’s in the book, too, just about how they transformed the community through their work, through their dedication.”
Melvin writes about the time his father brought home a bread truck and informed the family they would be turning it into a camper (they did), and how he burned a hole in the carpet of their house after his parents bought him his first chemistry set.
He also gets more personal than he has before, revealing an instance of abuse as a child by two older boys. It’s something he’s never discussed publicly, even with his family.
“When I started talking about that with my editor, she was like, ‘Are you ready for that?’ And I said I am, because this book is a tool to help other people,” Melvin said. “I’ve had a lot of mentors. I’ve had a lot of people that have had my back. … All these people who looked out for me and helped me. So this is my way to look out for others. To say, if you’re abused, if you have these things happen, there are ways to keep going. You don’t have to let that color your life. … Whatever the thing is, there is a way to overcome that and to be successful. I think sometimes we feel like we’re locked into this thing that happened to us.”
His sister, Cathy Melvin Hiske, is still in the process of reading the book and said she appreciated her brother’s honesty.
“I think it’s really important when somebody is writing a book that they are candid and that they just keep it real,” she said. “People want to hear the real story. People want to have real solutions to challenges, and I always like to say, that we may have challenges [but] not problems. Challenges you can fix.”
While one of those challenges, a hamstring injury, is what ultimately ended Melvin’s chances of playing in the NFL, it was another injury, during astronaut training, that became a formative experience in Melvin’s life, so much so that he opens his book with it.
It was his first day of spacewalk training in 2001 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where a “cavernous pool” houses a submerged space shuttle and International Space Station that allows astronauts to practice installing and attaching hardware so they’re prepared to one day do it during a real space flight.
As he descended into the pool, Melvin realized a piece of equipment that would allow him to clear his ears was missing. He was 10 feet deep, but didn’t want to stop his training. He went deeper and after another 10 feet, all he could hear was static. Then silence.
Melvin would eventually be diagnosed with bilateral hearing loss. The hearing in his right ear did slowly return over time, but not in his left. It should have ended his dreams of going into space.
“Reading his book … it’s exactly the title,” Spencer-Hester said. “It’s about second chances. It’s about overcoming obstacles. When you get knocked down, you get back up. You keep going. You take these risks and these opportunities, [and] these doors that open for you.”
For Melvin, that would come in the form of a waiver, signed in the wake of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. The shuttle disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.
He joined his colleagues in traveling around the country to visit with grieving families and, after observing him on several flights, the agency’s flight surgeon decided he was fit for duty.
Melvin went on to complete two space flights, in 2008 and 2009. Both times, he took on the difficult task of operating a 58-foot robotic arm to attach equipment and transfer supplies to the International Space Station.
“For me, that was the most compelling piece of the story,” he said. “It’s like, astronauts, you don’t think of them as going deaf and then going to space.”
‘Powered by STEAM’
Before he retired, Melvin spent four years as associate administrator in NASA’s education department. Since returning to civilian life, he’s continued his advocacy for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education, as well as STEAM and its added “A” for the arts.
“Sometimes as educators, we tell kids, ‘You’re going to be an artist or you’re going to be a scientist,’” Melvin said. “And we hamstring our children in telling them this fallacy. Because if you can get the two sides [of your brain] working together, you know, and the earlier you can get those two sides working together, the better integrated you will be in understanding our planet and our universe. And so I think that’s what really helped me be successful, was I had that integration at an early age. And that’s STEAM. Powered by STEAM.”
In addition to the book, Melvin also has launched a new interactive piece of his website.
Eventually, the section — dubbed “STEAMography” — will include profiles of people working in those fields. For now, it’s all about Melvin, with an animated timeline of his life.
He’s also become something of an activist. In March, he was interviewed for a Washington Post story about President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut NASA’s education budget, and in April he participated in the March for Science.
According to reports, Trump’s proposed budget, released last week, cuts NASA’seducation spending by two-thirds and terminates the education office entirely.
The office, Melvin said, is in charge of “all the things that NASA has done to make the connection with space, down to teachers, the general public and especially students. And that money also pays for students to get internships at NASA. Many of the kids, women and minorities that work for NASA came through this internship program. So if that goes away, there will be a lot less [opportunities].”
Another of Melvin’s passions is photography, going back to sixth grade when his mother bought him his first camera.
In February, he showed his photographs, taken from space and back on Earth, at the Academy Center of the Arts. He said of all the things he does, photography is the most fulfilling.
“[The] camera just changed my life,” he said. “Painting with light. And to see this stuff emerging in front of your eyes with this red light on, it activated my brain. … And so from that point on, I always had a camera. I always was shooting. And when my dad drove that bread truck home and we turned that from a bread truck into a camper, I saw what engineering was about.
“That combination of the arts and science and engineering and mathematics and technology, to me, is something I always embodied as a child.”
Melvin said he spends about 40 percent of his time in Lynchburg. The rest is spent trotting the globe for speaking engagements, activism and the occasional TV appearance.
In the years since he retired, Melvin hosted two seasons of Lifetime’s “Child Genius” and served as a judge for one season of ABC’s “BattleBots.” He’s currently working on a project with the National Geographic Channel.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s just been amazing,” he said. “We’ve got jet service to Charlotte. It’s so easy to get around. The train to New York. I can jump on the train.”
Yet Melvin has immersed himself in the community. He’s spoken at Heritage High and other local schools and the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast, helped dedicate a mural honoring aviation and aerospace pioneers at E.C. Glass High School, and headlined Randolph College’s SciFest in 2014.
He’s just as likely to be found at a First Friday art opening as riding his bike along the Percival’s Island trail.
“You run into Leland anywhere in Lynchburg,” Spencer-Hester said. “At the City Market. He was down here at an international festival that they had. He’s very engaged in this community and, of course, he’s all about education for young people and inspiring other people. He travels all over the world and the country, but Lynchburg is important to him.
“He never forgot where he came from. And that says a lot about who he is.”