Dec 8, 2009

Flying High: Aeronautics patch reaches final frontier

by Matthew Coleman

The NASA shuttle Atlantis began its eight-and-a-half minute ascent into Earth’s atmosphere on Monday, Nov. 16. Spewing a stream of flame and smoke, seven astronauts, 4.5 million pounds of fuel and the Atlantis’ cargo were blasted into space at blistering speeds nearing 2,000 mph with a flawless takeoff, according to

For astronaut and Lynchburg local Leland Melvin, this is little more than another day on the job.

A graduate of Heritage High School, Melvin went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Richmond in 1986, according to Melvin was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the same year. When injuries prevented Melvin from pursuing a professional football career, he went to work for NASA’s Langley Research Facility in 1989 and earned a master’s degree in materials science engineering in 1991.

Using the tools afforded by his extensive education, Melvin headed many frontline projects that aided NASA in the various missions conducted beyond Earth’s orbit. He worked on everything from fiber optic sensors to quantitative damage determination, which fell into Melvin’s field of specialty.

Melvin caught his big break in 1998 when he was selected for Astronaut Candidate Training which included “numerous scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in Shuttle and International Space Station systems, physiological training and ground school… as well as learning water and wilderness survival techniques,” according to

Melvin has been in space twice, once in 2008 on the STS-122 mission and on the more recent STS-129 mission in November 2009. Both trips were focused on adding to the international space station and completing its construction. As the mission specialist for the STS-129 mission, Melvin was responsible for operating the Atlantis’ robot arm to unload the invaluable cargo.

For his second trip into space, Melvin wanted to bring a little piece of Liberty with him. To honor Liberty and all it has accomplished, he brought a School of Aeronautics patch.

“The School of Aeronautics is honored that Leland chose our patch to take into space,” Young said in an interview with the Liberty University Advancement Staff. “He is a wonderful example to our students of what can be achieved through faith and hard work.”

Melvin’s extraordinary accomplishments have made him a Lynchburg icon and a model scientist for NASA. Throughout his career, Melvin has won eight Outstanding Performance Awards and two Superior Accomplishment Awards from NASA. Melvin was also awarded the key to Lynchburg City in recognition of his achievements.

After 11 days in space and traveling nearly 4.5 million miles, Melvin and the rest of the Atlantis’ crew returned safely. With the latest mission completed, Melvin is currently not slated to return to space.

Contact Matthew Coleman at

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