Lynchburg’s Rocket Man

Leland Melvin believes in reaching for the stars.

Robert Markowitz-NASA

Lynchburg native Leland Melvin seems to be everywhere. The retired NASA astronaut and one-time NFL draftee has logged more than 565 hours in space and served as a mission specialist on two Atlantis flights. Last year, he turned up on the Netflix series Dogs, with his beloved Rhodesian Ridgebacks. His TED Talk has been viewed nearly two million times. And he’s currently executive producing a documentary about the space race in the 1960s between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

But his favorite mission is encouraging people of all ages—especially children—to follow their dreams.

He’s following in the footsteps of his parents, who both taught at the same Lynchburg middle school, sharing the message that nothing is out of reach. “I watched how my parents raised my sister and me, but I also watched—because they were educators—how they raised everybody’s kids through school and the impact they had as educators in the community,” Melvin says. “I want to help kids have that same shot.”

The Right People at The Right Time

Melvin recalls how, years ago, he was signing autographs at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, when a young teenager named Stephen approached him and asked if he could be an astronaut, too. Melvin’s response: “You can do whatever you want.”

Years later, Melvin was George Mason University’s commencement speaker. Following his remarks, a man introduced himself as Stephen and told him, “I just graduated with a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering because you told me I could.”

Melvin rattles off a list of people who helped him reach his goals. One is Coach Jim Green, who gave Melvin the second chance that changed his life forever.

That moment came in Melvin’s senior year at Lynchburg’s Heritage High School, when he was a wide receiver on the school’s football team. Melvin was being watched by scouts from multiple colleges when he did the unthinkable: He fumbled a pass in the end zone.

Instead of pulling Melvin from the game, Coach Green gave him a do-over. Melvin caught the ball, leading the team to victory. The play won him a spot at the University of Richmond (UR), where he played football and earned a degree in chemistry.

“Anything is possible if you have the right people at the right time,” Melvin says. “We wouldn’t be talking right now if Coach Green hadn’t intervened.”

NASA/Carla Cioffi

Leland Melvin Meets with Elementary Students

From the NFL to NASA

After UR, Melvin was drafted into the National Football League, and was on the rosters of both the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys briefly before a hamstring injury ended his football career. For many, that tough break might have defined them. Instead, Melvin pivoted, heading to the University of Virginia to earn a master’s degree in materials science engineering in 1989, a move that paved his way to NASA. 

Since 1959, NASA has selected a total of 360 astronauts to serve in the program. Today, Melvin is considered one of the most inspiring members of that elite group. On two space shuttle missions to the International Space Station, in 2008 and 2009, he operated the shuttle’s robotic arm. And he became the only person ever to throw a football in the NFL and in space.

At NASA, he also advocated for STEM and STEAM programs and encouraged students across the country to consider pathways that would propel them to their goals. “You don’t just come out of the womb and fly in space,” he says.

Melvin retired from NASA in 2014, returning home to Lynchburg a day before his father, Deems Melvin, died. Following his father’s direction, Melvin bought land—a 92-acre property he named Melvin Meadows—and took care of his mother, Gracie, who died in February 2021. 

Lynchburg Headquarters

He’s fully engaged in his hometown, too, serving on the board of BWX Technologies, a company that provides services to the nuclear power industry, and can be found downtown regularly, whether at Bikes Unlimited or enjoying the view from the Skyline Grill atop the Virginian Hotel. He’s a fan of the oysters at The Water Dog. “The dogs love it there,” he says. When he needs coffee, he heads to Grains of Sense in the Community Market. “Best beans in the universe,” he raves.

The affable, hometown guy you might see strolling downtown with Zorro and Roux also happens to be represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the powerhouse talent agency behind clients like Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Reese Witherspoon. And instead of slowing during the pandemic, Melvin’s speaking engagements increased. He rented an office in downtown Lynchburg and outfitted it with lighting and technology, enabling him to create professional presentations. The effort paid off. “I think I did the most speaking [in 2021] than I’ve done in the eight years I’ve been with CAA,” he says.

Melvin says people still approach him when he’s out and about, looking for conversation or advice. He tries to oblige. “I’ve been very blessed to have these opportunities,” he says. “If I can share something with someone that helps them or their kids, that’s cool.”

Ultimately, he says, his mission now is to make sure every child knows they deserve a shot to succeed, no matter where they come from. “It’s about access and opportunity and belief,” he says. “If you have access and opportunity, at least you’re not being held back by the tools. But a person needs to believe in himself.” 

This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum