The Untold Story of Being a Black NASA Astronaut

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Guest Leland Melvin inspires the next generation of Charlottesville scientists and explorers. Photo by Tom Daly for UVA Engineering. 

 

Last Friday, former astronaut and special guest Leland Melvin spoke to University of Virginia engineers, students and community members following an advance screening of the new National Geographic documentary “The Space Race.” 

The film focuses on the untold history of Black NASA astronauts and, as National Geographic says, "seeks to redefine what 'the right stuff' looks like while giving us new heroes to celebrate." Melvin, an alumnus of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a passionate STEM advocate, appears in the film and also served as an executive producer.

Before his career as an astronaut and educator, Melvin was a professional NFL athlete. But when an injury prematurely ended his sports career, he turned to science and now dedicates his time to educating and inspiring the next generation.

After graduating with a master’s in materials science and engineering from UVA, he began working for NASA in 1989. By the late 1990s, Melvin was accepted into the Astronaut Corps and later flew two missions into space. 

After the screening, the standing-room-only crowd was treated to a Q&A session with Melvin, where he answered questions about training for space, representation in media and commercial spaceflight. 

When asked about his greatest challenge, Melvin described an astronaut training accident that left him temporarily fully deaf. Though he was told he’d never fly in space, he didn’t give up. He later regained partial hearing and was cleared for spaceflight. 

Many of Melvin’s comments emphasized the importance of human connection and support networks. With the example of Curious George and the man in the yellow hat, Melvin encouraged students to find their support system, even if it’s just one person. 

After the event, Melvin took photos and mingled with audience members, which included faculty, students, staff and members of the Charlottesville community, in Rice Hall. 

“The Space Race” screening was UVA Engineering’s signature event for the 2024 Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. The film will hit streaming platforms Hulu and Disney+ on Feb. 13.