*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #34, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
At 1.3 million feet above the earth, astronaut Leland Melvin caught a glimpse of his hometown every 90 minutes.
“It’s this surreal moment, seeing a sunrise or sunset again in 45 minutes,” Melvin said. “Flying over Virginia, looking at the University of Richmond and my hometown of Lynchburg. Then five minutes later, we’re looking over another astronaut’s hometown where he grew up.”
You might know Leland Melvin from the most adorable official NASA photo ever, in which he posed with his dogs, Jake and Scout. You may also have seen him with his dogs on an episode of The Dog Whisperer. But nothing else he’s done compares to his missions in space.
The International Space Station, which travels around the earth at 17,500 miles per hour, is home to astronauts of all nationalities and walks of life. Alongside scientists from nations that his own had been at war with, Melvin experienced the change in perspective called “the overview effect,” coined by author Frank White for his book on space exploration of the same title.
“We’re breaking bread with these people we had fought against, the Russians and Germans, and that was when my brain cognitively shifted,” Melvin said. “I was involved in something much bigger than me. I was doing this with people from all over the world… It’s really one big international family, and it transcends borders.”
Melvin was assigned to his first Atlantis mission in 2008 following his partial recovery from a training accident that had rendered him deaf. Shortly after his injury, NASA lost the space shuttle Columbia, which took the lives of all seven astronauts on board.
After the loss of his friends over the Texas sky, Melvin traveled the country on flights visiting their families and attending their funerals. Those flights hinted at a pathway for the recovery of his hearing.
“I couldn’t fly a shuttle mission because of this accident in a 5-million gallon pool, losing my hearing,” he said. “Then with my doctor taking notes on me clearing my ears during takeoffs and descents for the memorial services, he called me and said, ‘Leland, I believe in you, here’s a waiver for you to fly in space.’”
It was a conversation with Columbia Mission Specialist David Brown’s father after the funeral that solidified Melvin’s drive to take on a mission.
“His father said something to me which changed me,” Melvin said. “Which was that, ‘My son is gone, there’s nothing we can do to bring him back, and the biggest tragedy would be if we didn’t continue these space flights to honor their legacy.’ And so I got assigned to a mission, took the dog picture, and then flew. Three, two, one, liftoff!”
The Atlantis mission launched in February 2008. Its purpose was to install the $2 billion dollar Columbus Laboratory aboard the International Space Station, something the astronauts trained for using simulators on Earth. His second mission, another Atlantis flight, was assigned in November 2009.
“The first mission I spent my birthday in space, and the second I spent Thanksgiving,” Melvin said. “My parents and my sister threw this huge party down at NASA Langley Research Center, and I was watching them eat my cake over video stream while I was up there floating around on the station.”
Growing up in nearby Lynchburg, Melvin points to Arthur Ashe as one of his childhood idols. As an adult, Melvin got to play on the same court in Lynchburg where the famous tennis player trained during his own childhood. During the moon landing, when Melvin was five years old, he said adults would ask him if he wanted to be an astronaut one day.
He’d tell them, “No, I want to be Arthur Ashe.”
After his experiences on the space station, Melvin came home to share his experiences working and living off-planet with people from all over the world. He is an advocate for STEM education and says he wants to fuel the curiosity of the next generation.
“That whole process of doing something in space and then coming home, realizing how petty and insignificant some things were before you took off, that’s the kind of thing I would like everyone to understand,” he said.
“Even if you’re not going to fly in space, think about that perspective shift. You can see pictures of the Caribbean from space… you’d need new definitions of blue to describe those colors. They’re just so vibrant. Covering so much ground, seeing sediment rolling down the Nile River. To see the Mediterranean, and Afghanistan and Iraq, then to come home to Lynchburg in Virginia and the cycle just keeps going.”
In his book Chasing Space, Melvin talks about the journey he made as a small town kid from Lynchburg to space, becoming one of only 561 people to go to space. To honor the legacy of the friends he lost on Columbia, and with the insights he gained from his time in orbit, Melvin says his focus has shifted back down to Earth — and bringing its people together as one human race.