Thriving in Isolation with Astronaut Leland Melvin

On the eve of the first manned SpaceX launch, we catch up with former Detroit Lions player and NASA astronaut, Leland Melvin.

In 1977, Carl Sagan convinced NASA to turn a camera on the Voyager spacecraft back at us, the Earth already barely visible from Voyager's distance of 6.4 billion kilometers. That now iconic image came with an unforgettable passage from Sagan: "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam… it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Leland Melvin is one of very few humans to have seen Earth from space with his own eyes. A former wide receiver for the Detroit Lions, Leland is an engineer and NASA astronaut. He served on the space shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist and was named the NASA Associate Administrator for Education in October 2010. He also served as the co-chair of the White House’s Federal Coordination in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Task Force committee, developing the nation’s five-year education plan. He holds four honorary doctorates and was awarded the NFL Player Association Award of Excellence. Leland came to Pioneer Works to speak on his autobiography, Chasing Space, which reflects on his struggle to become an astronaut, the deafening injury he suffered while training with NASA that nearly crushed his dreams, and finally the triumph of making it to space.

Meredith Smith caught up with Leland about his terrestrial days. To hear from Leland about the power of the Earthrise image, watch this opening segment of his talk at Pioneer Works:

Earth From the Eyes of Astronauts | Leland Melvin at Pioneer Works
Meredith Smith

You share your personal journey in your book Chasing Space, telling about the adversity you faced and the odds you dealt with on your path to success and living the uncommon destiny you have achieved. The world has recently spun on a new time-axis it seems. I feel like we’re all kind of floating in space in a way, or as close as we might get. What observations and insights might you share?

Leland Melvin

There are some things from my training and from living in space that have helped me deal with this. While training for my first flight, our STS-122 crew on a NOLS trip, National Outdoor Leadership School, where the instructors tried to put us into some form of extremis where you will not break but get uncomfortable. You learn how you behave when you're uncomfortable and with a group of people that depend on you to do your part on the team.

I remember in particular learning the importance of self-care before group-care. One of my crewmates delayed the entire group’s departure time because he opted to help someone get their tent straight before he had done his own. Though the person who received help was ready on time along with the rest of the crew but the crewmate who had helped wasn't ready, and in turn, made all of us late. The point is, you just don't have the bandwidth to help someone else if you haven’t yet taken care of yourself.I learned from that; if I don't take care of myself, spiritually, from a health standpoint, from an emotional standpoint, and so on, then how am I equipped to help other people?

Another example of this happened while training in Utah. We were hiking ten miles a day in very hot conditions with 70 pound backpacks trying to find water. I realized that one of my crewmates, whenever he got thirsty, he got kind of snippy. From that point on I knew the signs and I would give him some water, which would always calm him down. Fast forward, when he would get a little frustrated in space, I would say, "Here, drink this."

So, as we're in these homes and close quarters for extended periods of time the two things that one must do is to take care of themselves and then also look for the signs in their housemates or family members that make them get to a point where they're about to get uncomfortable and help them find out what they need to not go there. [Laughs]


I've been thinking about all the young people too and I remember how much the young people in our Red Hook neighborhood really loved your talk when you visited.

I don't know what kids are feeling right now, those who are not able to see their friends or who might feel disappointed about not getting to share projects or sports as they finish the school year.


This gets to the point of perspective. I always talk about this, I think of the former slave Harriet Tubman who, as a child was hit in the head with an anvil and had dreams that turned into premonitions where she got to the point where she knew she had to escape her bondage.

And she—by herself—tricked and slogged and scraped and scratched her way to Philadelphia from the deep south. And then had the strength to say I'm going back to save my family, and she saved hundreds of people under oppression as well as famine and drought.

So, when you look at that and you put that into perspective of what she was able to do to free herself, we can free ourselves of the loneliness, the boredom, and not graduating as expected. We have our lives. We can still communicate with our friends and see their faces with FaceTime and Zoom. This is a little like a perturbation in our journey. And it's just a blip. It's different, but we can make it better as we continue to figure out how to rise, and work together as a civilization.

I think back to my view from space, looking down as we rounded the planet every 90 minutes. I flew over places where people were fighting, where there was war or famine but I was flying with people we used to fight against, the Russians and Germans. And I think about where we have come from, that standpoint of fighting with these people but now we're working together as a team. So, when you look from your Zoom portal or your window, what are you doing to help unify the team? Your family? Or those housemates to make it better for everyone in that ecosystem? And then take that to your neighbors, your community, and then to the bigger space.

All of us, no matter who we are, have the ability to take on an orbital perspective. . I'm not trying to say this is like a panacea. People are dying, losing loved ones and their jobs. But with all the pain and the tragedy, we must still rise. Maya Angelou—"And Still I Rise." We've got to keep rising, or what's the alternative? You can have it one of two ways, as they say in Shawshank Redemption: get busy living or get busy dying. We are all in this space of lockdown and virus and pandemic but keeping in mind the perception of where we want to be is important.

There is an Arthur Ashe quote I want to share with you because he's one of my heroes and I wanted to be like him when I was a kid. “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

Your book talks about inner strength and grit. I wonder if there's anything you recommend specifically right now, or kinds of tools for boosting sanity and imagining or reimagining what’s possible?


I think this is a time of internalizing and rebooting. It’s a time to look inside and ask yourself what do you really want to be and do with the time you have left. I posted this quote by Diana Smith, Revelwise on Instagram, "What do I not want to return to?" There are toxic people or job environments in our lives that we could probably do without, for example. How do you distill it down into the simplest things that are enough for you to go forward?

Lots of times we get caught in that hamster wheel. We just keep grinding to get this stuff and what does it mean during Covid? A lot of it means nothing.


I would love if you would tell me about the Neruda poem you read, “The Chilean Forest,” for the annual TheUniverse in Verse that took place online just in April. Maria Popova of Brainpickings curates and leads these epic annual poetry events, and your reading was so powerful. Do you regularly read poetry?


Yeah, I read and write poetry. I love Pablo Neruda. I’ve sent Maria my poetry and we have connected over that, Neruda.

For the The Universe in Verse event, I was at my house. I have these woods at the back and the wind started blowing and the trees were swaying like a third of the way through the poem as if Neruda was with me, to inspire me, to share his words. It was powerful. And then to watch it, as all the other people were reading the poems and their videos and the different things, the culmination of all of that was a really beautiful moment for me.

We just have to be thankful sometimes. I'm not saying settle, but be with what you have. It’s the little things that are the big things.


You will be co-hosting the SpaceX Dragon launch soon. What is exciting about this launch for you?


Oh, it is going to be amazing! Working with NASA and the commercial crew program with SpaceX is exciting for multiple reasons, especially now. The launch structure itself is beautiful, and there’s so much beauty in each part that goes into a launch.


It is astounding to see the rocket, aesthetically and the power and capability contained within. It looks like science fiction a bit.


Yeah, it is art and science coming together. It’s incredible to see the form and function so refined and in harmony. And the space suits are custom made for each astronaut! This was not the case in the past. Plus, they’ll be driving out in a Tesla with the NASA meatball and Worm logos displayed together. Many eras together as one. All the controls in the Dragon are touch screen and very sleek. The advances, like the custom-made suits, are important. Previously some astronauts were not able to do spacewalks simply because their suits weren’t the right fit. So, we are making steps towards access for all.

Starting at 12:15 PM tomorrow, I along with two other hosts will tell what all went into the making of this launch. Who are these two astronauts? What are they interested in, and what was it like to go through training during the quarantine? We’ll also visit the suit-up room and juxtapose it to the one where Neil Armstrong suited up.

We are all born through Covid together, as a civilization and a planet. This is not just America, it’s the whole world. We are all, no matter where we’re born, better when we work together. Even in isolation, we must stand up and work for inclusion. That’s what we’re doing at this launch and in one’s past.

Space is open to anyone. Tune in and check out this rocket—it could one day be your ride, off planet!

...God’s speed, crew Dragon, God’s Speed...

Leland and co-hosts at Kennedy Space Center preparing for NASA and SpaceX launch.
Leland and co-hosts at Kennedy Space Center preparing for NASA and SpaceX launch. See more pics and stay up to date with Leland on Instagram: @lelandmelvin

After Wednesday's scrub due to weather, NASA and SpaceX have targeted May 30th for the next launch attempt of the Demo-2 mission, the first crewed mission from the U.S. in 9 years. Leland along with two other co-hosts will be providing commentary during the launch of the mission, which is now scheduled for 3:22 p.m. EST on Saturday.

Where to watch the launch?

Online at On NASA TV for those with TV and cable system. Or you can stream it with this Rocket Launch Tracker App from our friends at Supercluster.

Reimagining Education with Leland Melvin
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