Astronaut Leland Melvin On How We Can Get Motivated To Save The Planet

Astronaut Leland Melvin on how we can get Americans to renew their excitement in the space program.

Leland Melvin’s resume is larger than life. That he’s the only person to be both drafted to the National Football League and be sent into space is only scratching the surface. Melvin spent more than 565 hours in space aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. After returning to earth, Melvin headed up NASA Education, became the co-chair of the White House’s S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education task force, and sat as the U.S. representative on the International Space Education Board.

The experience of going to space has afforded Melvin a perspective few people have. It’s part of the reason Melvin agreed to participate in National Geographic’s One Strange Rock (you can read our preview here), a series that is a visual love letter to a planet we all can take for granted at times. During a press call with reporters, we spoke with Melvin about the new documentary series, recovering from an accident that nearly prevented him from going to space, and why our politicians could benefit from seeing the planet from space. 

Melvin is prominently featured in an episode later in the season titled “Awakening.” Below is the transcript from our roundtable interview. One Strange Rock airs Mondays at 10:00 p.m. EST on National Geographic. 

We were just talking to one of the directors of One Strange Rock and she was saying each astronaut was kind of attached to a certain episode. Could you tell us about the episode that you worked on? 

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The episode I worked on is “Awakening” and how our brain and body kind of evolve and change. We’re the only creature on this planet that can do all these incredible things. And throughout my history of trying to fly in space I had a problem with my hearing. I lost all my hearing in a training accident and we talked about how my brain basically rewired itself to hear again and then I was able to get back on flight-status to fly. So, it kind of goes through my saga of re-awakening to be able to fly.

Could you talk a little bit about that training exercise and what happened?

It’s in my book Chasing Space if you want to read all the details. I was in the Neutral Buoyancy laboratory. The 5 million gallon pool. I was going down about 20 feet and if you’re the kind of person that needs to clear your ears by pressing your nose, fingers against your nose, you can’t do that in the helmet. They have this thing called Valsalva pad, which is about a $2 piece of styrofoam, the block that you press your nose against and they forgot to put mine in it.

So I had no way to clear my ears and when I went down I told the test worker to turn the volume up, and from that point on I heard nothing but static, they took me out of the pool. The doctor came over and there was blood streaming down the side of my face. I had emergency surgery and then they couldn’t figure out what happened to me, but just like with One Strange Rock, the mind is an incredible tool for overcoming problems. My hearing came back about three weeks later, but they still wouldn’t let me fly because they didn’t know what had happened, but things just got better and they allowed me to fly after about a year.

You flew two missions on this Space Shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist. What was your role on that mission?

Because I lost my hearing, they wouldn’t let me get back in the pool. The only way to do spacewalks is if you train in the pool. So the only job that I could really do was robotics. I was in charge of all robotics and I put the Columbus Laboratory out of the payload bay on the shuttle and attached it to the space station. So everyone in Europe was chanting “Leland, Leland, Leland” when I installed that because they’d been waiting 10 years to get that up there.

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So both times robotics, I was on the flight deck on both missions helping us get space station on the space shuttle as a Bridge Specialist 1 and Bridge Specialist 2. Then I was also in charge of all of the transfers. So all the items that we took up to space, transferring to the space station and then back. I did that on both missions.

What do you think it is that separates One Strange Rock from other shows about planet earth?

I think that the biggest part about this show is the connection with all my colleagues. We’ve all had different experiences in space. We are connecting our personal experiences as astronauts back to this overall perspective we saw from space, and then we have this crazy 4K visual cinematographic… I don’t even know how to describe the beauty of what they’re doing with cinematography it’s just remarkable. But it’s just a visual symphony and it blows you away, and if you’re watching in 4K on the big screen it’s gonna just be captivating.

When I was in space, I saw the planet for the first time. I saw the Caribbean Ocean, and I needed almost 32 different definitions to describe the colors of blue that I saw, the different hues. Our story is going to really help paint a picture of the perspective shift that we get as astronauts. So, I think that’s the compelling part, the story-telling, the rich storytelling with the visual aspects of this and to merge them together then have personalized goal then to tie it all together. You know, it’s just remarkable.

What do you think it’s gonna take for just regular Americans to be re-energized by the space program and renew our quest for discovery?

If you think about Elon Musk, Virgin Galactic, Xcor, Blue Origin all these companies are going be sending people to space. Still that’s only going to be what? 2,000-3,000 people? Let’s say 5,000 people in the next 20 years? That’s a very small number of people. But to get this shift, we’re gonna need to use shows like One Strange Rock and maybe have people come in massive virtual environments with the storytelling from the astronauts and try to give them as much of this visually, but also hear the stories at the same time.

So I think this kind of a precursor of ways to get people inspired and motivated to see themselves as working as one human race on this planet to save it. It’s really not saving the planet because if all these systems and things happen, the climate change and all these other things. We’re the ones that are going die, we’re the fragile ones, so we’re gonna get wiped out. The planet will keep going and figure out over eons how to take care of itself. But we’re the ones that are going to suffer from this demise of our ecosystem because of how we treat it.

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How much better do you think things would down here on earth if everybody could have that experience of going to space?

I think it would be much better if everyone in D.C. could get a chance to fly in space. I wrote a letter to our president and I mentioned he should look back at the planet from that vantage point because if we don’t get along, if we don’t work together, we die. It would change your perspective on how you govern and do policy. I truly believe that. That perspective is so powerful. That’s what I feel.