Engineer Leland Melvin Recounts Journey from the NFL to NASA

As part of the ongoing Clare Foundation STEM Speaker Series, Middle and Upper School students had the opportunity to hear from engineer, educator, former NFL wide receiver, and retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin on April 12.

Mr. Melvin, who served on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist on STS-122 in 2008 and as mission specialist 1 on STS-129 in 2009, kept students engaged and entertained as he recounted stories from his childhood to what it was like helping to construct the International Space Station.

From burning a carpet in his family’s living room with his first-ever chemistry set, missing a catch that almost cost him the chance to get recruited to play college football, and getting accepted into NASA before subsequently losing his hearing in a training exercise, Mr. Melvin's obstacles continuously renewed his need for perseverance and grit to pursue his life’s dreams.

"When I think about the Stripes, it kind of coincides with what I put in my book: [Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of] Grit, Grace, and Second Chances," Mr. Melvin said. "It’s the grit, the grace, the resilience; the things you have to do to get yourself through any time that you need to. I’ve been through a lot of crazy times, but it was people in my community that had my back and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself."

In addition to his already impressive list of achievements, Mr. Melvin has also served as co-chair of the White House's Federal Coordination in STEM Education Task Force and as NASA Associate Administrator for Education, and is a published author, photographer, and musician. Today, he said that his favorite role is that of a speaker and educator, inspiring future generations of students to pursue STEM careers and reach for the stars—both literally and figuratively. 

"I enjoyed Mr. Melvin's engagement with the audience," said senior Kian Ali. "He asked questions and helped us relate personally to his story. The part I enjoyed the most was his vivid storytelling of his injury, and how he didn't let it hold him back, rather saw it as a bump in the road to his journey into space. Additionally, I liked hearing that despite his initial path and major, he was able to access other fields and become what he wanted. He showed this, especially through his storytelling of his transformation of the truck (electrical engineering) into an RV with his father. His father, with no engineering background, was able to teach himself how to fix it up. This showed me that no matter my previous background in a field, if I want to learn/do something, I can."

Following his inspirational talk in the Class of 1944 Chapel, Mr. Melvin visited two classrooms to expand further upon his journey. During his visit with Upper School physics and chemistry students, he answered questions about his education, career with NASA, and the practicalities of hygiene and living in microgravity.

"When I asked what has been the single most rewarding moment of his career, his answer surprised, but also inspired me," said senior Alec Tsaturyan. "He said [it was when] his Dad greeted him, beaming with pride, after coming home from the International Space Station. Although this surprised me, this resonated with me because I am a huge advocate of the importance of family and can totally understand his answer."

Another crowd favorite was his answer to what it's like looking down upon Earth from space. Mr. Melvin’s response was simple: "profound and life-changing."

"What I enjoyed most about interacting with Mr. Melvin in my science class today was how relatable he was to us, just mere 7th graders," said Anna Bradford '28. "He dug up all of the fond memories and experiences he had in middle school in order to share them with us, and I respected that. When I asked him a question about how stressful the training was at NASA, he answered to the best of his ability and even made a connection to one of The Episcopal Academy Stripes, Self-Control. That is something that I can work on tremendously, and so the fact that he related his own experiences to mine was a nice touch."

Upper School Physics Teacher Dan Baxter said that his most important messages were "his reflections upon setbacks and recovering from them, working in a team, and following your curiosity. While relevant to all, these lessons were most resonating for our college-bound seniors."

In addition to messages of second chances, maintaining curiosity, and believing in yourself, Mr. Melvin also took the time to speak to topics relevant to what these students were currently studying. 

"I was so excited when Leland started talking about Newton’s Laws of Motion and how they relate to the time he spent in space," said Middle School Science Teacher Steve Kerwin. "We are just wrapping up our physics unit in my 7th grade science classes in which we've learned about Newton’s Laws and energy transformations, so this was perfect timing!"

For Upper School students, he "made reference to fundamental laws of nature, reiterating concepts for our students from a fresh perspective," Mr. Baxter explained. "His presentation compared images from the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes, which linked perfectly with this week's AP Physics lessons on optical image-formation and diffraction. Thanks to Leland, I wouldn't be surprised to see a jump in enrollment for next year's Honors Astrophysics class!"

"Follow your Stripes, have grit and resilience, and you will always get second chances," Mr. Melvin told students in his departing words.

Thanks to the generosity of the Clare Foundation, the STEM Speaker Series exposes our students and faculty to dynamic, innovative, and creative thought leaders from a range of STEM fields.