At 54, Leland Melvin likes to point out that he is the only human being in history to catch a pass in both the NFL and aboard a space shuttle — a resume anyone might envy.
But before he pulled on a Detroit Lions helmet, and before he orbited the Earth 374 times, he fought through obstacles that would have sidelined all but the most tenacious.
On Wednesday at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, the wide receiver-turned-astronaut will describe the injuries that scuttled his football career and nearly got him grounded as an astronaut, and the persistent attitude that eventually granted him a view from the International Space Station.
In his memoir, “Chasing Space,” and as a NASA ambassador for science education, Melvin brings the perspective of someone who has seen the Earth from 250 miles out.
“I tell people that my brain cannot really comprehend the number of colors I can see in the ocean,” he said. “We go around the planet every 90 minutes, and we do it at 17,000 miles an hour and we do it with people we used to fight against.”
Like so much in his life, Melvin’s voyage into space began with an accident: A childhood chemistry set he describes as “age inappropriate, non-OSHA approved” exploded in his Virginia living room.
Sitting there in the scorched aftermath, the future astronaut realized he could accomplish things with his brain, and that disasters could be cleaned up for a second try. But surprisingly, the spaceman-to-be never dreamed of space travel.
“I was one of these kids where I saw the moon landing and said, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to have a buzz cut and be in the military. I wanted to be Arthur Ashe.'”
Melvin played tennis, much like his Wimbledon-winning idol. But football paid the bills. On the team at University of Richmond, he got clearance to miss the hard practices Tuesdays and Thursdays so he could attend his chemistry lab.
As an 11th round draft pick for the Lions in 1986, he played a few preseason games. But a hamstring injury got him cut from the team. When he tried again with the Dallas Cowboys the next spring, he hurt the hamstring again, finishing his NFL career before he could make a first down.
Rather than mope, he started graduate school, earning the engineering degree that took him to NASA. The boy that tinkered with test tubes in his living room now tinkered with fiber optic sensors for a living. After nine years, the space program chose Melvin as an astronaut, broadening a group formerly made up entirely of white military pilots.
“When I was in space it was like a Benetton commercial,” he said. “We had African-Americans, Asian-Americans, French, German, Russian … Letting kids see this is just powerful.”
But before he floated in orbit, Melvin had another hurdle to clear. In underwater training for his flight aboard the Atlantis, he suffered an ear injury and went temporarily deaf. He describes the 2001 experience in the first chapter of his memoir:
“In my life, I’ve had my fair share of disappointments. But somehow every failure and every setback has led me to another opportunity. But this time felt different. … I’d have to give up on being an astronaut and exploring space. And if I didn’t have that dream to chase, what did I have at all?”
Seven years later, Melvin had recovered partial hearing and had taken his first of two flights. His photograph in a spacesuit, being mobbed by his pair of rescue dogs, Jake and Scout, went viral and has circled the globe more times than the space shuttle.
So many times, Melvin could have cursed his lot and sulked: as a failed first-time chemist, as a broken athlete, as an explorer whose world went silent.
Instead, he found out how much further, with steady pushing, he could go.