“Houston, we have a problem.” Leland Melvin was 25 feet under water in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a 6 million gallon pool, training to perform spacewalks as a NASA astronaut when he called the test director and asked him to turn the volume up in his headset. He never heard a reply and was immediately hoisted out of the pool to learn that he was deaf. Emergency surgery resulting in only partial recovery to his hearing led him to being medically disqualified to fly in space by NASA flight surgeons. This is just one of the many career ending challenges Leland has overcome in his life. Before becoming an astronaut Leland was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 1986 College Draft to play professional football but a hamstring injury thwarted his NFL career with Detroit and then later with the Dallas Cowboys. Hear his fascinating story of perseverance and how he ultimately traveled off-planet twice on Space Shuttle Atlantis to help build the International Space Station. Leland is the only person drafted into the National Football League to have flown in space. The Pro Football Hall of Fame honored his athletic and academic accomplishments by placing his Detroit Lions jersey under glass in Canton, Ohio. Through these professional experiences working on high stakes teams he developed a deep and nuanced understanding of effective team dynamics.
Leland has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in materials science engineering. He worked at NASA Langley Research Center in the area of nondestructive testing creating optical fiber sensors for measuring damage in aerospace vehicles resulting in publications in numerous scientific journals. After hanging up his space boots he was appointed head of NASA Education and served as the co-chair on the White House’s Federal Coordination in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Task Force developing the nation’s 5-year STEM education plan. Leland was the United States representative and chair of the International Space Education Board (ISEB), a global collaboration in space. He uses his life story as an athlete, astronaut, scientist, engineer, photographer, and musician to help inspire the next generation of explorers to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM) careers. Leland was also recently seen as the host of the Lifetime competition series Child Genius and is currently seen as a judge for ABC’s competition series BattleBots.
Leland holds four honorary doctorates for his service in education, the sciences and philanthropy. He was chosen as an ICON MANN with Quincy Jones, Forrest Whitaker, Steve Harvey and 24 other men selected for their ability to inspire people of all ages through their vision and commitment to creating positive change throughout the world. Leland has been honored with the NFL Players Association “Award of Excellence” for inspiring athletes to pursue excellence on and off the field. He has written a chapter on the power of visualization in Venus Williams’ book Come to Win. Leland has appeared on Top Chef as a celebrity judge and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman, while Cesar Milan helped him with his unruly pooch Jake on an episode of The Dog Whisperer. He was featured in a Sci Fi Channel program documenting the making of the “Reach for the Stars” will.i.am song, which was transmitted to Mars and back to inspire students to pursue STEAM. After 24 years with NASA as a researcher, astronaut and Senior Executive Service leader he looks to share his stories of perseverance and excellence to inspire communities for lasting positive change.
In May, Leland released his memoir, Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances. In Chasing Space, Leland shares his personal journey from the gridiron to the stars, and examine the intersecting roles of community, perseverance and grace that align to create the opportunities for success.
Leland currently resides in Lynchburg, Virginia.
"Leland was phenomenal. He connected with the audience in a very special way. Honestly, blew me and everyone else away. I especially appreciated how he wove in Northwestern specific names, events and themes - all in an absolutely spot-on and accurate manner. "- Northwestern University
"We were delighted with Leland’s presentation and participants were more impressed that he took the time to come to the dinner and socialize that evening. I hope that we will have the opportunity to work with Leland and you again."- Sterling Publishing
"It was excellent. Leland was friendly and flexible and his speech was fantastic. The only speaker of the conference I saw get a standing ovation. Thank you. "- National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications
"Aside from his remarkable story of overcoming adversity on the football field in his training to become a NASA Astronaut, personally I was blown away with Leland’s infectious spirit and huge, humble heart. We always reach out ahead of time and offer the opportunity to explore Memphis; and when I mentioned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, he immediately said, “I want to hang out with the kids!” Not only did he inspire the kids by sharing stories of space exploration, answering their questions, taking funny pictures, and passing out mission patches; but he had them fully acting out what it was like to be in space!"- Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club
"Leland was beyond amazing! The conference ended this morning and our delegates were still buzzing about him. He was a perfect fit for our event. What an impressive story and what an incredible guy...he even stayed about 20 minutes past his scheduled time to make sure everyone got a photo. I've never seen our speaker photo line that long, by the way. Everyone loved him. Thanks so much for all your help!"- Building Owners & Managers Association
"All I can say is wow! I can’t imagine anyone more perfect than Leland for our event. He was intelligent, inspiring, charming, and humble. Everyone fell in love with him."- The College Board
"Leland was an amazing speaker – the feedback that we received was absolutely outstanding. I’m certain I had at least 50 conversations where someone told me how inspired they were after hearing Leland."- Synergy Technical