Leland Melvin
Leland Melvin is the only astronaut in history to play in the NFL. (Courtesy photo)

Leland Melvin, retired black astronaut and former NFL player, has penned an inspirational memoir dedicated primarily to underserved youth.

Melvin’s “Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances,” released on May 23, takes readers on an in-depth journey through real-life experiences, triumphs and challenges from the NFL to outer space.

The Lynchburg, Virginia, native, who is a former wide receiver for the Detroit Lions and is now an engineer, had the unique opportunity to travel into space twice. His riveting book details the obstacles throughout his life that would ultimately lead to him becoming one of the nation’s most sought-after astronauts, with a central theme of placing children first.

“The more that I thought about it, this journey of a skinny black kid from a small southern town going into space, with all the other things happening in our country and the world, the more I thought about telling an inspirational story of hope, second chances and grace,” he said.

Melvin, who was named the NASA Associate Administrator for Education in 2010 after developing the nation’s five-year Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education plan and served as co-chair on the White House’s Federal Coordination in STEM Education Task Force, also made sure to include a different version of his book for children, titled “Chasing Space: Young Readers’ Version,” complete with hands-on experiments and activities for boys and girls ages 8-12.

“Whenever I go into classrooms, I never choose the words ‘man in space program,’” Melvin said. “There are so many little girls listening who then say ‘this is not for me,’ and then they don’t go into math and science like Katherine Johnson did.”

Johnson, an accomplished black physicist and mathematician, was the focal point of the recent blockbuster film “Hidden Figures,” which told the story of three black women who were integral to NASA’s space program in the 1960s.

“When I think about the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ and how long she lived her life unnoticed — Until ‘Hidden Figures’ came out, no one knew that a black woman used a pencil to calculate how to get John Glenn around the planet,” Melvin said. “How many other ‘Hidden Figures’ are there? How many people know that a black man played in the NFL and then went into space?

“I want kids to know that there are a lot of black people doing really incredible things and I want them to know that they can do the same things — that is my mission,” he said.

Next spring, Melvin will appear in “One Strange Rock,” a National Geographic Channel event series that explores life on Earth and its rarity in the universe. He will also host the Lifetime show “Child Genius” and serve as a judge for ABC’s “BattleBots.”

In the poignant story of his journey from the gridiron to outer space, Melvin chronicles his time as a mission specialist for two flights aboard the shuttle Atlantis and working on the International Space Station.

“In spacewalk training, the International Space Station and Space Shuttle submergs underneath 30 feet of water so that you can actually float like you’re in space,” he said. “As they were lowering me into the water, one of the things they forgot to put in my helmet was this little pad on your neck ring that allows you to clear your ears as you go down into the water.

“I was straining to clear my ears and could not hear a thing,” Melvin said. “All I heard was static and white noise. The exercise was immediately stopped as blood poured from my ear and I was rushed to the emergency room. I just knew I would never be able to go into space, but I didn’t give up and I remembered what my friend Janette had prophesied to me some time before, telling me that I would fly into space one day. And I did — twice.

“I want to connect with the youth and let them know that obstacles will come, but you can overcome it and be do anything that you put your mind to,” he said.

Lauren M. Poteat

Lauren Poteat is a versatile writer with a strong background in communications and media experience with an additional background in education and development.

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