Pelham Chases Space Program Hosts an Evening with Astronaut Leland Melvin

By Joyce Farrell

On October 3, the Pelham Chases Space program, a year-long, community-wide celebration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) hosted an evening with “Chasing Space” author Leland Melvin. Local events throughout the year will include book discussions at the Pelham Public Library, related movies at the Pelham Picture House, various author talks, art exhibitions, astronaut food challenge, rocket building and more. Melvin, a former pro football player and a retired NASA astronaut, spoke to the sold-out auditorium, encouraging students to study STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.) He asserted that everything has an artistic piece to it, that math and music are the only absolutes, and that music affects both sides of the brain.

When Melvin was growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, he was a fan of the show Star Trek, which, for the first time in television history, had a Black woman, Nichelle Nichols, as co-star, and remembers seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. While many kids at that time wanted to be astronauts, Melvin did not. His role model was Arthur Ashe, the first Black man to excel as a  professional tennis player. Even though Mr. Melvin chose to play a different sport, football, Ashe’s success inspired him.

Melvin’s interest in science was sparked in a very unusual way. His father and educator, as was Melvin’s mother, bought a bread company’s old truck. Melvin helped him rewire it, put in propane, and install bunk beds to convert it into a camper. In doing so, he learned how to repurpose stuff with vision and sweat equity and bits of mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering. Another time, his mother gave him a chemistry set, with which he caused an explosion in their living room! Clearly, his parents were keen on encouraging his curiosity and creativity.

In addition to encouraging kids to study STEAM subjects, Melvin also encouraged them to always keep trying. When he was a kid in Lynchburg, Virginia, Melvin was a big fan of two books, The Little Engine That Could and Curious George Mr. Melvin played football in high school and continued into college thanks to his coach, Jimmy Green, who “always had a back,” just like the man in the yellow hat in Curious George. Because of his support, Melvin knew it was important to keep trying, just like the little engine that could. This was especially evident during the homecoming game at his high school when he dropped the ball in the end zone. His coach, who “had his back,” told him that he believed in him and told him to get back out there and do it again. Even the quarterback didn’t want to throw it to him, but Melvin ran down the sideline and caught the ball! 

Someone having his back and his refusal to give up recurred several times in Melvin’s life and were keys to his success. After working on an optical fiber sensor to monitor the X33 vehicle’s integrity, he got a call to be an astronaut. While doing spacewalk training in Russia in a 5,000,000-gallon pool, he was lowered on a platform into the water but did not have the pad in his helmet that would protect his ears from the pressure. After emergency surgery on his ears, another “man in the yellow hat,” the head of the program, Daniel Goldin, came to visit him in the hospital. Melvin was sure that his dream to walk in space had ended, but Goldin assured him that just as NASA had never given up on the Hubbel telescope, he would never give up on Melvin.

Although Melvin was still medically disqualified from flying in space, things changed for him again after the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed when it returned to Earth. Melvin had regained partial hearing in one ear, and yet another “man in the yellow hat,” the chief of all flight surgeons believed in Melvin and cleared him medically. Melvin was assigned to the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Its mission was to install a laboratory at the International Space Station. While at the space station, Melvin had dinner with Russian and German astronauts, and his perspective changed as he and the others viewed the Earth, spoke of their hometowns, and “connected with all those who are, were, and will be.”

He ended his talk by encouraging the kids in the audience to never give up and keep going. “Believe in yourself, and listen to your parents and teachers.”

Dr. Tom Callahan, Director of Math and Science and Dr. Kim Riegel, a community member and founder of the nonprofit MINDSET, provided an overview of the new community-wide STEM collaboration centered around the book “Chasing Space.” Similar to “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” initiative two years ago, this effort will focus on K-12 activities that integrate STEM and the humanities and include a number of community activities. 

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