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Leland Melvin: A Former NFL Player, Chemist, and Retired NASA Astronaut

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Leland Melvin is a retired NASA astronaut, chemist, and former NFL player. On February 15, 1964, he was born in Lynchburg, Virginia to Deems and Grace Melvin. He became interested in chemistry at a young age after his mother bought him a chemistry set. Melvin began playing football at the age of seven and went on to become a standout wide receiver in high school. He received a football scholarship to the University of Richmond after graduating from Heritage High School in Lynchburg in 1982.

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Melvin excelled in football during his college years. He became the university’s all-time receptions leader while also honing and cultivating his chemistry interests. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1986 and later declared for the NFL draft. The Detroit Lions selected him in the 11th round of the draft. After only one season, a torn hamstring in training camp ended his professional career.

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Melvin pursued a master’s degree in materials science engineering at the University of Virginia, following his passion for science. During the 1987 NFL season, he was invited to the Dallas Cowboys training camp but turned it down in order to focus on his graduate studies.

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Melvin graduated in 1991 and accepted a position at NASA’s Evaluation Science Branch. His research primarily focused on fiber optics sensor groups, and he assisted in the development of advanced instruments for evaluation. He measured stain, temperature, and chemical damage in metallic and composite structures, as well as worked on other projects that determined damage to aerospace structures.

 

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Melvin was chosen by NASA’s Astronaut Corps in 1998 to train for “space walking” in order to participate in space missions. Melvin lost his hearing in his right ear during a training session in April 200 due to an underwater accident while wearing a 300-pound suit. Melvin began working with robotics rather than continuing his hopes of flying into space after several unsuccessful surgeries to repair the damage to his ear. The father of a friend who died in the same underwater “space walking” accident encouraged him to try flying again. Melvin requested a signed waiver to fly in memory of his friend, which was granted.

As a result, he completed his training and went on two missions to the International Space Station as a mission specialist in 2008 and 2009. He spent over 565 hours in space, becoming the 13th African American and the first former NFL player to do so. He retired from NASA in 2018.

Melvin is a distinguished scientist who is a member of the American Chemical Society and the Society. Honorary doctorates have been bestowed upon him by Centre College, St Paul’s College, and Campbellsville University. He now lives in Lynchburg, Virginia, with his two dogs.

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