ELKHART — Former NASA astronaut and NFL player Leland Melvin encouraged young people Wednesday to “shoot for the stars” during Elkhart Public Library’s summer reading kickoff event at the Lerner Theatre.
As a former wide receiver for the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, Melvin’s dreams were shattered when he suffered a hamstring injury for a second time, ending his professional football career.
Speaking to thousands of students, Melvin said he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Richmond, and later a master’s degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia.
“I was handed an application to become an astronaut,” he said. “The year was 1996. I didn’t fill it out, but a friend of mine did, and he got in and became an astronaut.”
While working in the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Branch at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Melvin filled out the application and was accepted into the June 1998 training program along with 31 other trainees.
During underwater training, once again, Melvin was faced with an injury that halted his career and risked killing his dreams.
“When you go swimming, and you get to the bottom of a pool, your ears get clogged so you squeeze your nose,” he explained.
In the atmospheric diving suits, a little styrofoam block called a Valsalva device allows divers to clear their ears by pressing their nose against the block.
“I went down about 20 feet into the pool and then realized they forgot to put mine in,” he explained. “I told the test director to turn the volume up in the headset so I could hear. I thought the cable was kinked.”
They pulled him out of the water to check the cable, and the technician helped him take his helmet off. The flight surgeon began walking toward him, moving his lips, but making no sound.
“When he got close to me, he took his hand and he touched my right ear,” he recalled. “When he pulled his finger back, there was a river of blood coming down the side of my face. I was completely deaf.”
He had emergency surgery, but surgeons were unable to find a cause.
“Here I am, in the prime of my life, potentially being assigned to a mission, and I can’t even hear a bomb drop.”
His hearing began to recover in about three weeks, but he would never be able to pass the stringent medical examination required for space travel.
“I have no hearing in my left ear to this day,” he told students. “In my right ear, I can only hear speaking frequencies. I can’t hear high frequencies, sounds and things, so they told me I would never fly in space.”
He was sent to Washington to work in the education sector of NASA.
“I’m working hard to stay the course and see what’s going to happen, and as we are flying to the different service stations around the country, the chief of all the flight surgeons, he says to me, ‘Lelend, I believe in you. Here’s a waiver for you to fly in space.’ He gave me the waiver because I didn’t give up, because I kept going.”
His first mission was in 2008 on space shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist on STS-122 to the International Space Station, and a year later on STS-129.
He retired from NASA after serving as co-manager of NASA’s Educator Astronaut Program and associate administrator for the Office of Education.
The Elkhart Public Library heard Melvin’s story and knew students in the reading program needed to hear it.
“We wanted to get somebody who would engage the kids and get them excited about reading, and who better to do that than a former astronaut and educator?” said Sam Householder, new media marketing specialist for the Elkhart Public Library.
Over 2,500 students from the Elkhart Community Schools, St. Vincent School and Elkhart Christian Academy came to Melvin’s presentation, which served as the kickoff to EPL’s summer reading program, Stories in the Stars.
The summer reading program has been the core program for libraries across the country for decades, Householder said.
“Something like this really gets kids excited and involved in it,” he said. “We need to get kids excited because a lot of times they’re not, especially over the summer break, but if you’re incentivizing it, and you can pick whatever you want to read, it’ll foster that love for reading.”
Children and teens can read what they want, when they want and, by filling out an entry form, they can enter to win prizes.
Among the prizes are a grand prize weekend in Chicago with museum passes, accomodations and $200 spending cash; hoverboards, telescopes and Elkhart County Fair tickets with ride wristbands.
Younger entrants can use the summer reading game board to collect beads for a bead chain, as well as enter for the other prizes.
“The library is here to serve the community and we want to get as many people aware of it as possible and find ways to engage with everyone that’s in our library district,” he said. “Their tax money funds our library so we want to put that money to good use, and early literacy is what the library’s all about.
The summer reading program continues through July 18 and will include many space-based activities like opportunities to “party in the moonlight,” visit a makeshift space station, learn about aspects of space, create galaxy-themed art, videochat with storytelling astronauts on the International Space Station, try out an astronaut training session and stargaze at local parks.