Review by C.J. Bunce
Young Leland Melvin wasn’t the type of kid who dreamed about flying in outer space. But he was guided by good parents and developed the right stuff to work for NASA for more than a quarter of a century that culminated in two space shuttle flights to the International Space Station. Melvin has written his memoir and it has been published in a version for kids and a version for adults. Harper Collins and Amistad Press’s Chasing Space is a book that every school library should carry, a book kids should read to understand that you can be anything you want to be.
Melvin credits a good mind-set for his ability to adapt to new situations and succeed in whatever he put his mind to. But even with hard work, life manages to get in the way sometimes. Unforeseen circumstances stopped him in his tracks at several points in his many pursuits, including college, where he was almost expelled for an alleged ethics violation. In high school football he made a mistake that his coach allowed him to redo, resulting in him getting a scholarship to college. His girlfriend and he were pulled over and a racist police officer tried to get him thrown in jail. He played football for the Detroit Lions, but a recurring hamstring problem knocked him out of the sport. He got another chance at football, this time for the Dallas Cowboys, but his leg stopped him again. Only after returning to graduate school work did his career in science take hold, and once he graduated NASA was practically waiting for him. But his pathway to space was tripped up by a problem with his ear while training. And despite it all, and being one of the first African-Americans to forge a path where few had gone before, Leland Melvin worked hard, mentally and physically, and overcame everything thrown in his way to become one of only 550 humans to leave the planet and become an astronaut. He is known by many as the astronaut that had his formal NASA photograph taken with his two dogs, Jake and Scout, who would later join him and Cesar Millan on an episode of Millan’s Dog Whisperer show.
Melvin flew on the Space Shuttle Atlantis during missions STS-122 and STS-129 and worked closely with astronauts that were lost on both the Challenger and Columbia disasters as well as current astronauts like Peggy Whitson and Suni Williams, who have continued to set new records in space aboard the International Space Station. In Star City, Russia, Melvin worked closely with and trained alongside former Navy SEAL Bill Shepherd–the famed astronaut “who knew how to kill somebody with a knife”–as Shepherd prepared for the very first long-duration flight by an American and becoming the first commander of a crew based at the International Space Station. Melvin even helped Russian scientists translate tech manuals into English in Moscow. Surprisingly astronaut training for Melvin included extreme survival training and adventure hikes across America and giving talks around the world, learning to stretch the boundaries of his own abilities. When one of his crews was without a medical officer, he volunteered and trained to add that role to his list of duties. He spent months stitching up cadavers and working on emergency room patients to be ready for any kind of emergency in space, training under the eye of famous skilled surgeon Dr. Red Duke, the doctor that had admitted President Kennedy and Governor Connally at the Dallas hospital in November 1963. All these seeming tasks and trials are not obvious things the average person thinks about when they hear the word “astronaut.” Yet all prepared Melvin to be able to think on his feet should a problem occur, and that according to Melvin’s account, is the way of astronaut training.
Melvin’s life was filled with events like any other’s, those missteps where his progress could have been stymied but for the aid and support of mentors along the way. As Melvin says in his book, “failures in life are the building blocks for later success.” According to Melvin, anything is possible. Melvin tells stories about many African-Americans in particular and others who blazed the trail for him in Chasing Space. Now retired, Melvin continues to address crowds and inspire others as a motivational speaker, among other public affairs projects, hosting TV programs, and working on other business opportunities.
For anyone who ever wanted to be an astronaut and anyone trying to get past life’s roadblocks, Leland Melvin’s Chasing Space is available now at Amazon, in standard format here and in a young reader’s edition here.