One Man’s Journey: from the NFL to Space with Leland Melvin of NASA – Ep15

Most college students don’t stay in the field in which they received their degree.  In fact, only 27 percent of college graduates have a job related to their major.  This is no surprise, as many people move around once they get a taste of the real world…however, the story of Leland Melvin is much more than a simple career change.

Leland wanted to be a scientist, but became a football player, and not just college, he went on to the NFL.  Once he retired, he went back to his original plan to become a scientist, right?  We’ll, not exactly, he ended up in space.  Leland was a keynote speaker at SOLIDWORKS World 2019, and shares his fascinating story, and some advice for all of us, in our latest Born to Design podcast that was originally recorded at SOLIDWORKS this February.

Listen in to her more about Leland’s fascinating story…

Thanks for listening today, and remember: if you are interested in learning more about Leland, just do a quick search online, and check out the “Base 11 Space Challenge” he mentions in the podcast here…

Also, be sure to check out all of the Born to Design Podcasts and subscribe below so you will never miss an episode:

Soundcloud  Subscribe to Solidworks Podcast on Spotify iTunes Stitcher Listen on Google Play Music TuneIn - Solidworks Podcast Page Subscribe to Solidworks Podcast on CastBox  Subscribe to Solidworks Podcast on Overcast


Complete Transcript:

Leland Melvin 0:00
When you look at a map on the earth, you see political borders, but in space, you don’t see political borders, you see geographical borders. And that humbles you to say that, wait a minute, we’re all in this together. And I think more people will have the chance to see this. This beautiful planet from that vantage point. The wars were stop. The political bickering would stop is a transformative thing.Cliff Medling 0:23
Hi there this is the Solidworks born to design podcast a collection of inspiring stories about those who create, build invent an engineer new ideas into actual new products. And by the way, they all use Solidworks. I’m your host Cliff Medling in this episode is titled one man’s journey from the NFL to space. Listen as my colleague Jeremy regularise interviews, Leland Melvin at solid works world 2019 Leland shares his incredible story from playing football in the NFL, to becoming an astronaut and experiencing space travel. It’s an amazing journey, and Leland shares where his success came from. So let’s jump right in.

Jeremy Regnerus 1:00
Leland, thanks for being with us.

Leland Melvin 1:01
Thanks It’s great to be here.

Jeremy Regnerus 1:03
So I had the opportunity to sit and watch you speak and talk about inspiring stories. I wanted to spend a few minutes for the folks maybe at home who didn’t get a chance to tune in maybe cover a few other things. So for the folks at home who don’t know, you’ve had an interesting career. You

Leland Melvin 1:21
Little, few curves here and there haha

Jeremy Regnerus 1:22
Yeah, you. You’re, you’re the only NFL player to have flown in space.

Leland Melvin 1:27

Jeremy Regnerus 1:28
So the first thing I have to ask is how do we go from the NFL to space? Because that’s not a regular journey?

Leland Melvin 1:35
Thats a good question. I am. You know, I’ve always been a tinkerer. As a kid, you know, I had a chemistry set up blew my mom’s living room. I always loved sports, though. So that balance between the the jock and the nerd was there at a very early age. And as I, you know, meandered to college on a football scholarship, I, you know, I wasn’t planning to go to college and was constantly be a chemistry major. But that that popped up. So it’s really like being real ready for whatever you’re presented with.

And I got to college, I got drafted the Detroit Lions, and then play some football pulled a hamstring muscle pretty bad. In both the Detroit Lions in the Dallas Cowboys camp, and then started grad school then went to work for NASA, which every NFL player does,

Jeremy Regnerus 2:15
yeah. haha

Leland Melvin 2:17
or something, right. And then my, my friend said, you would be a great astronaut, I just laughed at me and gave me an application. I didn’t fill it out. And then another friend of mine, Charlie Camarota, he filled the application out that time and got in, I said, that knucklehead can get in. If he can get in, I can get in, right.

So I apply the next election. And I got in. And I think, you know, the the discipline, the perseverance, all those things that you do in sports, the teamwork aspects of it. And I had a solid, you know, technical record in science and engineering. And so they saw that, and it’s all about teamwork, when you fly in space, and having, you know, technical skills to do tasks like robotics, and spacewalks. But I think they saw me as a person who could fit in well with the roof and do these incredible things in space.

Jeremy Regnerus 3:02
It’s an incredible story. And I think one of the things that really resonated for me is all along this journey, even if it was the sports aspect of your life, your education, and then ultimately going on to be an astronaut. You talked about the people in the yellow hat.

Leland Melvin 3:18

Jeremy Regnerus 3:19
What does that mean?

Leland Melvin 3:19
Curious, George. I mean, my mom read to me the little Engine that Could I think I can’t, I think I can. And Curious George every single night and curious George got in trouble. But it always had that man in the yellow hat, who got him out of trouble, or was there for him to get him through. And I’ve had people like that throughout my life, whether they’re mentors, family members, educators, and I think we all need that that person in the yellow hat, and only one to be there for you for making decisions about am I going to use Solidworks, I’m going to, you know, what am I going to do to get this problem solved?

And I think that’s so important that some people don’t have that person, then they drop out of a program. So having this community of people with Solidworks is incredible. And I saw one of the people on the stage, it talked about having these user community I SWUGN or something.

Jeremy Regnerus 4:05
Swugn Yeah,

Leland Melvin 4:05
Having this user community group that gives people awards for their contributions back to the community, which is incredible. And that’s those are the men and women in the all hands right there.

Jeremy Regnerus 4:14
I you know, I myself wouldn’t, I would have never gotten into engineering myself if it weren’t for a very specific teacher who I took an engineering class on a whim in school. And I had a teacher who believed in me, and well, maybe you should present us and here.

Leland Melvin 4:29
You remember the teachers name?

Jeremy Regnerus 4:31
Mr. Pat Sheley?

Leland Melvin 4:33
Pat Sheley, the man in the yellow hat.

Jeremy Regnerus 4:35
Yeah, he was the man in the yellow hat for me. You’re right. I do remember his name. They I called him one day and said, Thank you.

Leland Melvin 4:41
Nice. Nice.

Jeremy Regnerus 4:42
So there’s a lot of there’s a lot of the story that you went through in here, one of the other things that you’ve done that I think is quite incredible. And you you sort of past that you you sort of passed over as though it was insignificant, but I think it’s one of the most significant things was you help all the Columbia module onto the International Space Station. And that journey was really unique for you, you got to experience a lot of firsts on some of these missions that you went on. Can you elaborate on that? A little bit?

Leland Melvin 5:13
Yeah, the Columbus laboratory is was the European Space Agency’s baby, they’ve been waiting 10 years to get this thing installed. And Dassault Systems help develop it and do you know, a lot of the work to get it ready. And we launched to the space station and my, I’d never flown in space before. But my assignment was to grab this tin can out of the payload bay of the space shuttle with the robotic arm and attached to the space station.

And as as we get closer and closer to the space station, the motion just stopped. And I’m like, Oh, my God, what’s what’s going on here, because everyone in Europe is depending on me to get this thing installed. But they were for ready to latch indicators. It was spring loaded, they were pushing on the module, I was having translational hand control, we’re pulling so slowly, that that motion gets stalled out, and I pull just a little bit more boom, and everyone in Europe is like Leland, Leland.

So that was what I thought my mission objective my aha moment would be, but it was when we floated over over to the Russian segment with the rehydrated vegetables, and broke bread at 17,500 miles per hour with people used to fight against Russians in Germans. And the first female commander and this was my, my moment of getting this orbital shift this perspective change while listening to shot a smooth operator, you know,

Jeremy Regnerus 6:36
yeah, right.

Leland Melvin 6:37
And so that was really transformative, coming home and then flying again in space with the first first time the two African American men was paid at the same time one, Space Shuttle Atlantis 129, STS 129. So that was pretty amazing. And also catching football in space.

Jeremy Regnerus 6:51
Yeah. I mean, you, you mentioned the number 452 people have been to space only only a very small fraction of many people have ever seen how insignificant our problems are from up in space. I mean, you always hear this, you watch shows on whatever television networks they are. But I mean, looking down on Earth, it you have to have that sense of our problems are so insignificant.

Leland Melvin 7:19
And when you look at a map on the earth, you see political borders, but in space, you don’t see political borders, you see geographical borders. And that humbles you to say that, wait a minute, we’re all in this together. You know, these landmasses that we travel over? There’s another community there, you’re here. And I think more people have the chance to see this, this beautiful planet from that vantage point. The wars were stop, the political bickering would stop it would be it’s a transformative thing.

Jeremy Regnerus 7:48
And the one thing that really ties you all together is this concept of STEM or and you also say STEAM,

Leland Melvin 7:54
Right? Because, you know, when we’re having this meal, and I’m floating to Peggy’s mouth, that’s culinary art, right? I mean, we have all of these cameras, we’re taking pictures. That’s, that’s art. I mean, these things are art. And I think everyone has that artistic thread tied through them that tied to us culturally. But we share food, we share music, we share all these things. And so I say STEAM because we don’t want to not include the arts

Jeremy Regnerus 8:20
I and I think most engineers feel the work that they do is art.

Leland Melvin 8:24
It is it is it really is.

Jeremy Regnerus 8:26
So um, we talked a little bit about being inspirational to other people. But there was another big thing you talked about, at the end, you talked about three key points, prepare, ensure and inspire. And an initiative you’re working on with that is you want to encourage the next generation of engineers through a program called base the base 11 space challenge. Yeah, can you tell us a little bit about the base 11 space challenge,

Leland Melvin 8:52
This is really, really cool. Okay, $1 million, goes to students that can build a liquid propeller rocket, they can fly up to the von Karman line, which is 100 kilometers, and the first team to do that gets $1 million. And so this is like the equivalent of the X Prize for Virgin Galactic, you know, and I think that if we can give students experiential activities, that results in a payoff, I mean, you know, in, in the HR profession, and in the business world, you know, you when you get, you get a payoff, whether its monetary, or whether it’s bringing a community of people together to be inspired.

And I think as the spokesperson for base 11 space challenge, we are doing just that we went to Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore, two days ago, and we were trying to get more diversity into the rocket challenge, until they got a $1.6 million dollar foundational grant to start building a rocket center on their campus.

And there was a there was a competition through historically black colleges. But again, we need to make sure that the solutions that we do generate come from the most diverse minds, there was a paper in 2013, I think, from Scientific American That said, the best solutions come from the most diverse teams, and whatever that diversity is, you know, ethnic, geographic, whatever it is, but we need to make sure that the people that are using these platforms come from all around the world.

Jeremy Regnerus 10:19
Yeah. Well, Leland, we uh, when we think about being the person in the yellow hat, you have any advice to give the the folks at home to be an inspiration to always be there for that person to tell them never to give up? I mean, you have any advice to give the folks at home?

Leland Melvin 10:35
Yeah, I, you know, I want to a lot of different things. I lost my hearing in a training accident while I was trying to get ready to fly in space. And they told me that would never fly. And they were people that were around me, they said, don’t give up hope, you know, believe in yourself. I don’t have hearing my left ear. I’m not medically qualified to fly in space, I flew twice. So always know that you can get through something with the right support with the right people in the yellow hat with your community with your family and, and believe in yourself. You know,

I never imagined flying in space, but I had the right tools, like Solidworks has the right tools to get people solutions. I had a chemistry degree, I had a material science engineering degree, I built things I created things. So always create, believe build, and you can do anything.

Jeremy Regnerus 11:21
Alright, Leland, I want to thank you so much for being here with us today. This has been amazing to me. I’ve never actually gotten the chance to speak with an astronaut. So this I’m a little in awe right now.

Leland Melvin 11:33
Well, here’s the deal. So you have this patch now, and this patch, if you use it in the right place can get you the space. So use it wisely.

Jeremy Regnerus 11:40
All right. Leland thank you so much for joining us.

Leland Melvin 11:43
Thank you.

Jeremy Regnerus 11:43
And for those of you tuning in at home if you want to get involved. Remember, there’s many ways you can get involved, whether it’s through FIRST Robotics with the local education system, whether it’s being a mentor to somebody and getting into a trade skill, or whether it’s being an educator or a teacher, there are hundred different ways that you can be an inspiration to the people around you to make this world a better place.

Cliff Medling 12:06
Thanks for listening today. And remember if you’re interested in learning more about Leland search online for “base 11 space challenge”, which Leland had mentioned.

We will be back again soon with more great Born to Design podcast stories as , or wherever podcasts are readily available. Until then, keep innovating. I really hope that what you heard today is inspired you If you enjoyed it, please head over to iTunes search for the Born to Design Podcast and leave a five star review so that this podcast will be recommended to more people helping us expand the Born to Design community. Thank you

Transcribed by

Cliff Medling

Cliff Medling is a Senior Marketing Manager at SolidWorks and the host for the Born to Design Podcast.