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Reaching For The Stars: Leland Melvin's Odyssey As An Afronaut

The Space Race - Leland Melvin
Leland Melvin

It took nearly 30 years after NASA's establishment for the organization to send its first Black astronaut into space, a milestone achieved by Guion Bluford in 1983 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. In the 40 years since Bluford went to space, only 15 other Black astronauts, including Leland Melvin, have followed suit.

Melvin's journey began in 1998 when he joined the Fiber Optics Group in the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Branch at NASA Langley Research Center. Subsequently, he was selected for the Astronaut Candidate Training Program by NASA JSC. In the documentary The Space Race by National Geographic, the stories of Black astronauts, also known as afronauts, including Melvin, Ed Dwight, Charles Bolden Jr., and others, are shared to redefine perceptions of achievement in space exploration and to bridge the gap between fiction and reality, bringing Afrofuturist dreams to life.

The first step in Melvin’s path to becoming an astronaut was first realizing that it was possible for a Black man to venture into outer space. Before Bluford entered into space, millions around the world saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969. “So when the moon landing happened and Neil and Buzz [Aldrin] walked on the moon, the next day, all the kids wanted to play astronaut. I didn't want to. I didn't see the transmission [and] I didn't want to be them. I didn't see someone who looked like me out there doing that,” Melvin shared about not feeling represented in the first historic moon landing. “My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted, but for some reason, that didn't seem possible because there was no one in the history books who had tried that, and that's exactly what this movie is talking about.” 

While during his childhood he didn’t see what a Black astronaut could be, the blueprint had already been set by Dwight when he arrived at NASA in 1989. Working at NASA wasn’t on Melvin’s radar when he was recruited. Melvin was a Materials Science Engineer who graduated from the University of Virginia with a Master’s degree. While at a job career fair, he credits Rosa Webster, a Black physicist at Rosa, for being his bridge to enter into NASA Langley Research Center. 

“They realized that the only way that they're going to bring diversity to NASA and Langley was to go out and recruit and get the talent. It was me, Keith Norwood and Brian Holman. We all went to UVA. They came and got us and were hiring us on the spot. We all worked together and it was just an incredible experience,” Melvin recalls. “So even though we didn't have that representation, the representation came and found us to make sure that we were part of the story. And that's where I met Katherine Johnson from Hidden Figures at NASA Langley.” Nine years later, Melvin would join the Astronaut Training Program at NASA.

The Space Race - Ed Dwight
Ed Dwight

“So I was working at NASA Langley Research Center doing some engineering, some research and stuff on fiber optics and different stuff and this friend of mine said, ‘Hey, they're looking for astronauts. Here's the application; fill this out.’ I was looking at the application like whatever. I don’t want to be an astronaut and then I didn't fill it out. But one of my other boys, Charlie Camarda, filled the application out, and he got in. And I said ‘That knucklehead got in. Wait a minute. If he can get in, I can get in. So the next selection, I filled out the application, and I got in.” Once in the program, Melvin realized just how rare it was to be a Black man in the astronaut training program, as he was the only Black person in his class of 31. His main responsibility in space was to install a $2 billion laboratory in the space station. Years later, Melvin and other Black astronauts like Bolden would lend their support to Victor J. Glover, a Black astronaut who became the first Black astronaut to live in the International Space Station. 

“He was in space with a George Floyd painting, and we were all lifting him up on a Zoom call to give him what he needed. He has a wife and four daughters back in Houston, and this was right during the deliberations in Derek Chauvin's trial — whether Chauvin was going to be exonerated or charged. It was a really tough time,” Melvin said.

While Melvin has seen breakthroughs in the achievements of Black astronauts, he has also seen tragedies. In 2003, Black astronaut Michael P. Anderson lost his life in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, and 17 years before that, Ronald McNair lost his life in the Challenger explosion. Melvin spoke about these tragedies and felt a sense of honoring the memories of both Anderson and McNair. 

“We don't let something like that keep us from continuing to explore, because we've always been explorers. And so the only way to honor the legacy of our forefathers is to keep doing it, to keep grinding in spite of. Harriet Tubman said, ‘I got to freedom.’ They said, ‘You can't go back.’ She said, ‘Watch me. Watch me explore, watch me build my own rocket, watch me keep rising, even though my forefathers perish under whips and chains and dogs.’ And so we owe it to them to not give up and keep going,” Melvin said. He also shared that although he didn’t meet McNair, he met his wife Cheryl and walked with her through Ron McNair Park, learning about McNair’s struggles at MIT and beyond.

Although now retired from NASA, having served as NASA Associate Administrator for Education before retirement, he hopes to inspire future Black astronauts through his participation in The Space Race documentary. Melvin quoted black science fiction author Octavia Butler, saying, “You've got to write yourself into history. You might not be included, you've got to write yourself in.”

Check out the full interview.

Photo Credit: National Geographic


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