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African American Astronaut Encourages Continuous Learning

Leland Melvin says it's never too late to pursue your passions

From NFL player to NASA astronaut to internet meme sensation, Leland Melvin has worn many hats and continues to constantly challenge himself in life, even after retirement. 

"It's never too late to figure out why you were born," Melvin tells AARP in a video for its Spinoffs video series, which explores how people 50 and over can continue to follow their passions. “I really hope that people get with us 50-plussers that you can do anything you can put your mind to,” he says. "Once you start answering that question, that could be at 95. Let's say you live to 100. You have five years to live out this passion, this why." AARP chose Melvin for Spinoffs in part to mark Black History Month.

Although he excelled in science, Melvin didn't dream of becoming an astronaut as a child. Instead he was inspired to become an athlete like Arthur Ashe, the first African American man to rank No. 1 in tennis. 

"I saw someone who looked like me, and I was told he had great character, discipline and all these things," Melvin recalled. And Ashe accomplished all of this during a time when African Americans were still being hanged in the South, Melvin said.

Melvin followed his athletic inspiration and started playing football, becoming a record-breaking wide receiver for the University of Richmond Spiders in Virginia. In 1986 he was drafted by the Detroit Lions into the National Football League, but an injured hamstring cut short his professional football career. Melvin then refocused his energies on graduate studies and pursuing a career as a scientist, which brought him to NASA. There he worked with African American heroes including mathematician Katherine Johnson, later featured in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, and astronaut Charles Bolden, who encouraged him to apply to be an astronaut.

Melvin eventually applied and was selected in 1998, flying on space shuttle missions in 2008 and 2009. Later he would become NASA's associate administrator for the Office of Education. Although he retired in 2014, he continues public advocacy and educational work in the field.

Melvin even took an unexpected turn as an internet sensation when a picture of him in his space suit, along with his two rescue dogs, went viral. The photo graces the cover of Melvin's 2017 book, Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances.

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