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Leland Melvin

Aerospace engineer Leland D. Melvin was born in Lynchburg, Virginia on February 15, 1964 to Deems and Grace Melvin. Upon graduating from Heritage High School in 1982, Melvin was awarded a football scholarship to attend the University of Richmond. He earned his B.A. degree in chemistry from the University of Richmond in 1986, and his M.S. degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia in 1991.

From 1982 to 1985, Melvin was a wide receiver on the University of Richmond football team, where he became the all-time reception leader and was an Associated Press All-America selection in 1984 and 1985. The Detroit Lions selected Melvin in the eleventh round of the 1986 National Football League player draft. Several months later, he suffered a hamstring injury and was unable to fully recover. Melvin’s NASA career began in 1989 in the Fiber Optic Sensors group of the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Branch at NASA Langley Research Center, where he conducted research in the area of physical measurements for the development of advanced instrumentation for nondestructive evaluation. In 1994, Melvin was selected to lead the vehicle health monitoring team for the cooperative Lockheed/NASA X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle program.

In 1998, Melvin was selected into the NASA Astronaut Corps. He flew into space twice on the
STS-122 in 2008 and STS-129 in 2009. Both missions were aboard the orbiter Atlantis. Melvin has logged more than 565 hours in space. Additionally, Melvin has served the Astronaut Office Space Station Operations Branch and the Robotics Branch of the Astronaut Office. In 2010, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden selected Melvin as the associate administrator for education. In this position, Melvin travels throughout the U.S. engaging thousands of students and teachers in the excitement of space exploration and inspiring them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Melvin was also selected to serve on the White House National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education and is the U.S. representative on the International Space Education Board.

Melvin is a member of the American Chemical Society and the Society for Experimental Mechanics. He also holds honorary doctorates from Centre College, St Paul's College and Campbellsville University.

Leland D. Melvin was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on January 15, 2013.

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Heritage High School

University of Richmond

University of Virginia

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Favorite Vacation Destination

Zihuatanejo, Mexico

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Believe in yourself. Don't limit yourself. The sky is the limit.

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District of Columbia

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Astronaut Leland Melvin (1964 - ) , former astronaut serving twice as mission specialist on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis, is NASA Associate Administrator of Education.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Johnson Space Center

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center

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Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Leland Melvin's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Leland Melvin lists his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Leland Melvin describes his mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Leland Melvin describes his mother's educational background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Leland Melvin describes his father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Leland Melvin talks about his aunt</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Leland Melvin talks about his father's upbringing</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Leland Melvin talks about his father's service in World War II</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Leland Melvin describes his father's educational background and involvement in sports</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Leland Melvin talks about his father's teaching experience</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Leland Melvin describes how his parents met</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Leland Melvin describes his parents' personalities</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Leland Melvin describes his family growing up</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Leland Melvin describes his earliest childhood memories</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Leland Melvin talks about the origin of his name</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Leland Melvin describes his childhood neighborhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Leland Melvin describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Leland Melvin describes himself as a child</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Leland Melvin talks about his early interest in science, space, and photography</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Leland Melvin describes his family camping trips</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Leland Melvin describes his early education</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Leland Melvin describes a lesson learned on the football field</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Leland Melvin talks about studying math in high school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Leland Melvin describes his decision to study chemistry at the University of Richmond</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Leland Melvin describes his college research</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Leland Melvin talks about being drafted by the Detroit Lions</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Leland Melvin talks about training with the Detroit Lions</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Leland Melvin talks about the Dallas Cowboys and the University of Virginia</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Leland Melvin talks about his musical background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Leland Melvin talks about football and head trauma</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Leland Melvin talks about his transition to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Leland Melvin describes his graduate research</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Leland Melvin describes his work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Leland Melvin talks about becoming an astronaut</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Leland Melvin describes his experience in Russia</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Leland Melvin talks about the International Space Station</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Leland Melvin talks about his hearing and his work with the Educator Astronaut Program</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Leland Melvin describes his astronaut training</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Leland Melvin describes his space flights - part one</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Leland Melvin describes his space flights - part two</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Leland Melvin talks about the effects of space travel on the body</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Leland Melvin talks about other crew members during his space flights</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Leland Melvin talks about what he has learned from his space flights</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Leland Melvin describes his work in the Office of Education</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Leland Melvin discusses his hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Leland Melvin reflects upon his career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Leland Melvin talks about his aspirations to have a family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Leland Melvin talks about his legacy and how he would like to be remembered</a>







Leland Melvin describes his work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Leland Melvin describes his space flights - part one
Okay. NASA, now, I have a note here that you worked on the Fiber Optics Sensors Group of the Nondestructive Evaluation Science Branch, right?$$Uh-huh.$$Now, what is Nondestructive Evaluation?$$So, the branch that are working at NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Langley looked at using different types of energy to assess damaged states in aerospace vehicles. So if you have an airplane that has lab joints that are bonded together with adhesive and also have rivets going along the top of them, we had problems with rivets coming apart, and the only thing holding that wing together would be the adhesive below it. So we would actually take, using Xray, using lasers, using different types of ultrasonics, using different types of energy and nondestructively or in a non-contacting way, we would put the energy in and then make measurements of what the subsurface damage was underneath that wing, or in the case of the space shuttle, how much is a tile damaged. Is the tile about to dis-bond from the surface of the shuttle, you know, so you could use a technique that you wouldn't have destroy it none destructive to see how the damage state was subsurface. And so whatever type of energy you could use to do that none contacting or none intrusively we could use, and then that would save time and money in having to repair things that necessarily didn't need to be prepared. So I would take and use optical techniques for this but also use optical fibers that you could take a fiber and use it to interrogate a damaged state of a structure so the fiber could measure strain if you bond it to the surface of something. As the fiber is pulled, the laser light that goes through it actually changes wave length at these seams called (unclear)or sensors, and that wave length change is proportional to the change in strain. So if you have this vehicle wrapped with sensors and you see different strain states at different locations then you can detect that there's maybe a damaged area around this none uniformed strain state, and we also use them for measuring hydrogen, that we have vehicles that have hydrogen tanks, so you could sniff, use a sensor to sniff for hydrogen instead of having to--and actually be able to locate where that leak is, as well as temperature also. So, multiple measurements, we call it, and out of a very lightweight installable bondable sensors. So, my job was to develop the laboratory; we built an optical fiber drawn for making our own optical fiber. And as we drew the fiber, we had a laser, an excellent laser that was actually etching the sensors into the glass before a coating cup that allowed it to coat it to make the fiber more durable. And so these were high--pretty high-tech sensors that we were making. And the day that we made our first sensor was the day that I got a phone call to come into the astronaut corp, so that was a very fortuitous day for me in a number of areas.$Okay. Now, describe the mission in 2008, what were you to do in space and the steps approaching?$$My first mission, I was in charge of all the robotics activities and the transfer activities. So, I was the lead robotic operator for the, both the arm on the space shuttle and the arm on the space station. Our job was to install the Europeans Columbus laboratory, it's a ESA(sp) laboratory for different material science in biological sciences and other things. I was to grab the--basically grab--use the arm and grab the Columbus module out of the payload bay and attach to the station, and all of our German flight controllers, all of our German friends and European friends had been waiting ten years for this to happen. And so, I remember coming out of a meeting, and one of our, you know, they were celebrating me, you know, are you going to help install our module to get us up on space station. I remember one German flight controller, as I was about to walk out of the room, he said, "Leland, you know, congratulations, high five, we've been waiting ten years, don't' screw it up." And so, no pressure when you're seeing this vehicle getting, you know, this model getting docked to the space station, you're thinking about messing something up, screwing something, but you know, the training kicked in, and it was aligned perfectly, and you know, I can go back to that German flight controller today and say, "I didn't screw it up; you still have your job, things are going well." But, a great sense of accomplishment; that was early in the mission. The rest of the mission was supporting some space walks, attaching--doing different things on the module, itself. And so, that was primarily my role for 2008. And then in 2009--$$What would have happened had you screwed that up and the modules didn't connect the first time? I mean, was there a second chance, like in the in-zone, you know, to catch--$$Well, it depends on how bad you screw up. I mean, if your bringing--you have this seal around the module that if you damage the seal when you're trying to birth this module, you would make the whole vehicle inoperable, because if you were to damage that, and you do a leak check on it, and if it's leaking, leaking air, then that's pretty much an appendage that's sitting there, it's trash, it's no good, because it can't hold a seal and would compromise the rest of the space station. So a very slight misalignment or scraping of that seal could have rendered it useless. And a multi-billion dollar element, peoples' livelihood, their jobs, at these control centers monitoring the Columbus module, I wouldn't have been a--$$--Popular--$$--A popular guy in Europe or even in the U.S. if I had done that. But again, the training is very good, and had the confidence, even though it's my first time flying the robotic arm, and I had other people that had done that behind me, saying you're doing great, you know, pull this in here; it was fantastic.$$So, the very idea that you have that assignment, you know, speaks to the confidence of a whole lot of people in you, right?$$Right. I demonstrated that in the training and then working in the robotics branch, also. I think they saw the skill set that I brought to the table. It was evident that I could do the job. But you never know, on a simulator getting to the actual space environment and nerves and so forth, and I think, you know, me being selected into the corp, because I didn't have a lot of operational skills, I never did a lot of flying of air planes, where you have to be exact or your die, or diving or doing mountain climbing, those are some of the skill sets that we looked at for new people coming in, but I think they saw the operational bent of the professional athlete or training and working as a team member was, you know, some confidence to say that you can work in this high stress environment and do a job without, you know, getting rattled or kind of freaked about doing it.$$Okay. So, just for the record, in 2008, you were a missions specialist on board the STS-122 Atlantis, that February of 7th through the 20th, 2008?$$Right.$$Okay. So, you went back after 2009--$$Uh-huh.$$--It was on the same shuttle?$$Same orbiter. I guess I only fly Atlantis, right? I was assigned in I think it was July of 2008 for the next mission, and it was a pretty incredible mission. We had the--my job here was to install spare parts; so again, in charge of robotics and transfer. But also, I was going to be flying around on the end of the arm, another African American astronaut, Dr. Bobby Satcher, who was to do the first orthopedic surgeon to operate on the robotic arm in space. And so it was the first time that two African American men were in space at the same time. And I remember Tom Joyner interviewing us in space; he was calling us the afronauts. And his show has a million person listernership, and there were kids all around the country and people listening, you know, seeing this first, two African American men in space and even to this day, you know, moms seek me out to tell me, "I heard that interview, my son wants to be an astronaut and he's studying physics and science now". So the impact of that mission had on our young African American male men as to seeing some of those like them in that environment, floating and working in space, that they could also do it one day too.$$That's great. Now, this launch was in 2009? What month was this?$$This was in November of 2009. So I spent Thanksgiving in space, eating a rehydrated turkey. And very thankful for the people that were there; thankful for the people that were on the ground in Mission (unclear), spending their thanksgivings monitoring our mission and thankful to our families, you know, who helped us do all that.$$Now, was there anything--did anything go wrong on this mission?$$Yeah, we had--on ascent to space station, there was a medical situation that happened. Actually, on the first mission, there was a--something that happened medically, and I was the crew medical officer, because we didn't have a trained physician on the flight. I volunteered to be the crew medical officer. So, I went through some training, emergency room training and some other different training and actually had to do some things on that mission to help some of our crew mates, but it was very empowering to know that we had to do this, because it was during the docking phase; we had to get this done, or the mission would not be successful; we'd have to come home. And so that was something I felt really comfortable, really good about helping save that mission like that.$$Can you tell us exactly what happened?$$No, I can't tell.$$Okay. I thought so, or else you would have told us. When you think back on these missions--well, there was a second crisis, you said in 2009, a medical--$$No, there wasn't. That was 2008. Okay.