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Leland Melvin on his Journey from the NFL to NASA

Bob Edwards chats with Melvin on his path from being a football player to becoming an astronaut on the International Space Station

Take on Today Podcast

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BOB EDWARDS:

Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP take on today.

NASA and the space program have inspired generations of Americans to dream big and pursue careers in science, math and technology. But with the Space Shuttle chapter closed.

And with prominent memorable accidents like the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. Space seems further out of reach today than it did three decades ago.

How does that shape the dreams and aspirations of the current generation?

My guest today, astronaut Leland Melvin knows the impact of inspiration firsthand. Not only has he been in space, but his first taste of fame came in the National Football League.

He wants our children and grandchildren to embrace education and the opportunities that may come even if there is more uncertainty in today's world.

BOB EDWARDS:

Leland Melvin, welcome to the program.

LELAND MELVIN:

Thank you for inviting me!

BOB EDWARDS:

You say you have a jock nerd syndrome. Is this a treatable condition?

LELAND MELVIN:

[Laughter] I don't think it's really treatable. You get it and it’s something that you live with for the rest of your life. It's kind of hard to treat that syndrome. But one of the things that comes from that is it keeps you curious, keeps you looking up at the night sky and makes you a lifelong learner.

And as a 54-year-old young man, I always think that with that curiosity I can still be athletic. I can still do things. I can still learn new things. And I'm always learning. So, I think that's a really important part about growing old, gracefully. And in staying in tune with what's going on.

BOB EDWARDS:

So growing up in school. You could hang with the jocks. You could hang with the Nerds. That never happens.

LELAND MELVIN:

It was weird though. Because you would be in calculus class; you're respected for what you know and then you go out on the football field. Typically, those two groups don't really get along. They kind of talk about each other. So, I'm hearing the dirt on each side and I'm kind of like the buffer in between.

BOB EDWARDS:

You were inspired to become an athlete, because of the tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Tell us about that.

LELAND MELVIN:

Well in 1969, I was five years old when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon. Everyone was talking about being an astronaut. And I had this guy who trained five blocks down the street from where I grew up on Pierce Street in Lynchburg, and it was Arthur Ashe. My dad talked about his intelligence, athleticism, empathy. These were the character traits that I wanted to have for me. I thought well what better way to do it, then to mimic him and be a tennis player.

BOB EDWARDS:

You were drafted out of the University of Richmond by the Detroit Lions. But you ripped a muscle. How did you then decide—oh, I'll just go to NASA. Who does that?

LELAND MELVIN:

Well, I never imagined playing football in college—even more or less never imagined that in the NFL. Everything was just kind of a bonus. But I always loved math and science. So, I always knew I was going to probably be a scientist.

When I pulled the hamstring in training camp with the Detroit Lions, I went back to grad school and I started working my master's degree. Then I went to the Dallas Cowboys. So, I was taking classes while I was with the Cowboys and ended up pulling the hamstring for the second time—with Danny white on the field and Tom Landry watching. Then I went back to grad school, finished and went to work for NASA. What every NFL player does. Right?

BOB EDWARDS:

Of course. A lot of kids dream of being an astronaut. Did you share that dream?

LELAND MELVIN:

I did not. Because I wanted to be Arthur Ashe. And I just didn't see someone who looked like me. Neil and Buzz with those buzz cuts they were military people. My dad had been in the military, but I didn't think I was going to be a military person. It just didn't align.

The stars didn’t align until much later. When I was working at NASA and a friend of mine said I'd be a great astronaut. I laughed at him. He handed me an application and I didn't fill it out. In that same year, another friend of mine, Charlie Camarda filled out the application and he got in. I said to myself, wait a minute if that knucklehead can get in. I can get in. So, I applied the next election and got in.

BOB EDWARDS:

What's the process?

LELAND MELVIN:

It's a government form. You fill it out. And then it was about 2,500 people that applied for 25 spots. And my resume, references and those things got me an interview.

I went down to Houston and went through a battery of psychological, physical tests.

Then you have this one-hour interview with people that have walked on the moon and you're trying to convince them that you have the right stuff to be part of this elite club. I guess with my athletic background—the teamwork in sports—and then my academic record was enough to give me a shot to be one of those 25.

BOB EDWARDS:

Wow, was that the toughest test?

LELAND MELVIN:

You know, that was interesting. I was leaning back in my chair. I was nervous. I started leaning back in my chair and almost flipped over in the interview. And the person who was in charge of the recruiting there caught me and saved the day. I think if I had fallen all the way back—I probably would have been too rattled to finish the interview. But it worked out.

BOB EDWARDS:

While you were at NASA you met Katherine Johnson, whose story is captured in the film “Hidden Figures.” Tell us about that.

LELAND MELVIN:

Katherine is one of the most incredible, brilliant souls—that wants everyone to rise and to do great things. And we tutored kids in SATs. We had math contests in this organization called the National Technical Association. I remember her always. I never really knew all those things that she had done until hidden figures came out. But I knew that she had this great gift of bringing people together to do really incredible things.

And we've just recently celebrated her 100th birthday party. When I gave her my book “Chasing Space,” she asked the question, Leland when are we going to Mars? She's always thinking, forward thinking. And always trying to inspire and give hope to all children to rise and do great things.

BOB EDWARDS:

You traveled to the International Space Station. What's it like there?

LELAND MELVIN:

It's one of the most beautiful environments. Because you look back at the planet and most of the people that go to space—about five hundred sixty-two people—have had this thing happened to them called the overview effect. We get this perspective shift, cognitively, that changes us. When we see our planet with all of these blues and greens and going around it every 90 minutes while you're breaking bread with people you used to fight against. I was on a mission with the Russians, Germans and the first female commander and it just blew me away.

I thought my Aha! moment would be when I used the robotic arm to install this Columbus laboratory, which was the primary mission objective. But when we broke bread at 17,500 miles per hour—blowing around the planet—sharing this meal and looking out the window seeing my hometown. Then five minutes later seeing where Leo Eyharts’, a French astronaut, hometown was in Paris. And Yuri (Malenchenko) looking off to Moscow where his family sitting. It just changed my perspective on us as a race, the human race. And that we're all earthlings that should be working together.

BOB EDWARDS:

You had revelations on your trips to space?

LELAND MELVIN:

I had multiple revelations.

BOB EDWARDS:

Young people today are not experiencing similar historical moments like past generations. There's been a decline in STEM education. STEM being science, technology, engineering and math. How should we encourage our children and grandchildren today?

LELAND MELVIN:

I think the biggest part of inspiring a child is to give them things that they can do and build that are relevant to their environment, or to helping a cause and helping change the world. I think a kids building using just Legos can help someone.

There were some kids that I was with at the White House—under the last administration. And these kindergarteners were actually building with Legos a page-turner for someone who didn't have arms and wanted to read a book, so the pages would actually flip at a certain rate. And the president asked them, how did you come up with this idea? They said, well we were brainstorming. And the little girl asked the president, have you ever brainstormed?

So, giving these kids something to do—it doesn't matter what age they are—that can help other people. It’s experiential. It's hands-on. And that's what—to me—STEM is all about. It's about building and creating things that can help other people, our country, our universe.

BOB EDWARDS:

You have embraced change throughout your career. What advice do you have for others looking to make a change or accomplish something new?

LELAND MELVIN:

I think the biggest part of making a change is to kind of look inside yourself and see why you're even on this planet. What is your purpose? And to live out that purpose. If you haven't done it yet, find out what that thing that really motivates you, inspires you and then go for it. Go do it. And then see how you can take that infectious passion and then give it to someone else and help them find their dream, and their why.

I think my dad helped me find that at a very early age—when we built a camper out of a bread truck. I learned how to be an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer building this camper. And my mother gave me a chemistry set when I was even younger than that and I blew her living room up. I knew I could be a scientist.

I don't want those things to happen to people—blowing up a living room and getting in trouble like I did. But that fueled my curiosity. So, find those things or that thing that really gets you psyched and then go for it.

BOB EDWARDS:

More and more people are making career changes as they age. What advice do you have for those considering them?

LELAND MELVIN:

I would say go for it. I retired from NASA when I turned 50 and four years later I am doing so many more things—with inspiring kids, writing books, speaking, television shows. I would have never imagined these things you know growing up—more or less football or space. You can always reinvent yourself no matter what age you are. You can do it with grace, passion and with a zeal.

BOB EDWARDS:

You have more chapters?

LELAND MELVIN:

There's always more chapters.

I'm working on a graphic novel for kids called “Mission Five” where the five stands for the five letters of STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Because I believe that arts are that cultural thread that ties us together. Whether it's eating meals (culinary arts). Whether it's seeing visual things. Whether it's making beautiful art that people can wrap themselves around—an Afghan or a quilt. Or they'd see a beautiful painting. I think the arts is something that really brings together our humanity in STEM.

BOB EDWARDS:

Leland Melvin you are an inspiration. It was so nice to meet you and thanks for being part of the program.

LELAND MELVIN:

Thank you, Bob. It was such a pleasure.

BOB EDWARDS:

Here’s what else you need to know this week.

BOB EDWARDS:

If you are afraid that you may have waited too long to turn a great idea into a new business start-up, consider this: 

Bernie Marcus cofounded the Home Depot at age 50.

Arianna Huffington founded the Huffington Post at age 55.

Even better, is this good news from the Harvard Business Review: older is better.

In a report published online in July, the Review says that highly successful companies were founded by entrepreneurs at an average age of 45. And the odds of business success continue to rise into the late 50s.

Says the report: “If you were faced with two entrepreneurs and knew nothing about them besides their age, you would do better, on average, betting on the older one.”

When older applicants are often overlooked in the current job market, those considering launching a new venture will be happy to know that age definitely as an edge.

[OUTRO]

BOB EDWARDS:

For more, visit AARP dot org slash podcast.

Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcast apps.

Thanks for listening.  I’m Bob Edwards.

On this week’s episode of An AARP Take on Today, Bob Edwards chats with Leland Melvin on his journey from the NFL to the International Space Station.

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