Apr 8, 2008

The Sky's the limit

by Natalie Lozano
Astronaut and Lynchburg native Leland Melvin addressed the Liberty campus in convocation on April 7, two months after his first voyage to outer space.

Melvin was one of the six members of the STS-122 crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which launched on Feb. 7 and returned Feb. 20. The mission was to carry and then attach the European laboratory unit, Columbus, to the International Space Station. Melvin’s role was to use a robotic arm to move the Columbus from the Atlantis payload bay and attach it to the International Space Station.

Convocation began with Lynchburg Mayor Joan Foster honoring Melvin by declaring Monday, April 7, 2008 to be Leland Melvin Day. Melvin summarized his trip with a slideshow presentation, including pictures taken from outside the Space Shuttle Atlantis while it sped through space at “17,500 miles an hour — pretty fast,” according to Melvin. Other pictures depicted the astronauts hugging, working, playing with their food and enjoying the view of earth from space. “I wish I were a poet so I could describe it…. You see how fragile our planet is, but also that there are no borders,” Melvin said in a press conference.

Melvin encouraged the convocation audience to find and pursue a vision: “You might not know exactly what you want to do, but you have a path.” In college, Melvin did not aspire to be an astronaut, but he said, “I loved math and science” and had “people along the way who helped me find my vision.”

Melvin studied and landed his inspiring job through a series of providential circumstances. Two hamstring injuries ended his short NFL career, which included preseason games for the Detroit Lions in 1986 and training camp with the Dallas Cowboys in 1987. Melvin left Dallas to complete his master’s degree in material science engineering at the University of Virginia.

Prior to the NFL draft, Melvin was an All-American receiver for the University of Richmond. He explained he was almost not recruited due to a missed pass in high school. At the end of his senior homecoming game against Rustburg, a recruiter from the University of Richmond walked away from the game after he muffed a catch.

Fortunately, in the next play, Melvin caught the pass, and at the noise of the crowd, the recruiter turned to see Melvin in the end zone with the ball. “After such horrific failure, I had two coaches that believed in me,” Melvin said about the first missed pass. He encouraged Liberty students to remember that people similarly believe in them. Another person who believed in Melvin was Mark Storm, the current athletic director for Melvin’s alma mater, Heritage High School, and the tennis coach and an assistant football coach while Melvin was in high school. “He had a tremendous career, academically and athletically,” Storm said.

Melvin’s chemistry teacher at Heritage, Cornelia Campbell, described Melvin as having “all the attributes of a young Christian man” while in high school. “He wasn’t a nerd by any means,” Campbell said. Heritage remains supportive of Melvin. When Atlantis launched in February, the students and faculty gathered in the school’s media center to watch Melvin’s venture into space. Storm believes that Melvin’s story will remind and inspire students to “challenge yourself to do your best in your schoolwork — don’t be mediocre.”

While Melvin’s schedule is pretty packed during this visit to his hometown, Storm hopes to bring Melvin back to Heritage again. “The plan is to see when his schedule is a little less hectic, maybe a fall football game,” Storm said. Foster also wants to see Melvin return “to talk to young people whose only vision is today.”

Melvin’s family was able to watch the launch in Florida in February and also threw Melvin a surprise birthday party on Feb. 15, while he was in space. “We went down to NASA Langley and we had a video conference (with) a cake (and) we lit a candle,” Cathy Clarke, Melvin’s older sister, said.

The event was a surprise because Melvin expected his family to be in Lynchburg, where communication was limited to audio, but Langley allowed for video conferencing. Throughout convocation, Melvin acknowledged the importance of family and being role models rather than heroes. “It is very important that you have someone you aspire to be,” Melvin said. Melvin began his speech by requesting a moment of silence in honor of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The STS-122 crew left six days after the five year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia’s fatal re-entry over Texas in 2003. Melvin believes that the best way to respect their legacy is to continue to pursue the cause for which they gave their lives. “The biggest tragedy would be if we don’t continue to explore,” Melvin said.

Despite the potential danger that space travel brings, Melvin’s family was calm during his trip. “I wasn’t nervous. We were very trusting and believing that God was going to take care of him,” Grace Melvin, his mother, said. Clarke agreed. “We had a confidence that it was God’s perfect will and God’s timing. We had a peace inside and that made a difference.” Contact Natalie Lozano at nalozano@liberty.edu.
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