Meet the NFL Player Turned NASA Astronaut Who Went to Space After Going Deaf
Photo Credit: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for TRANS4M

Meet the NFL Player Turned NASA Astronaut Who Went to Space After Going Deaf

Leland Melvin knows a thing or two about beating the odds as he is the first NFL player to fly in space, according to Face 2 Face Africa.

“I remember this quote, and it said the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why,” Melvin said in an interview with the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).

As a young boy, Melvin reveals he had a passion for building things. He shared how he created his own bicycle from parts he picked up and once refurbished an old bread truck and family camper with his father. No matter what, he always jumped at the opportunity to experiment with whatever he laid his hands on.

“It’s never too late to figure out why you were born,” Melvin said. “Once you start answering that question, that could be at 95. Let’s say you live to 100. You have five years to live out this passion, this why.”

As a high school student, he was afforded the opportunity to attend a special engineering program at the University of Virginia that was geared toward minority students. However, Melvin recalls that he still did not dream of being an astronaut at this point because in the 1960s all American astronauts were white.

His dream was to be like Arthur Ashe, the first Black man ranked as the No.1 tennis player in the world, who was still able to achieve fame at a time when Black people were still being hanged in the Deep South.

“I saw someone who looked like me, and I was told he had great character, discipline and all these things,” Melvin said, according to Face 2 Face Africa.

While he did not play tennis like Ashe, Melvin did play football for the University of Richmond Spiders in Virginia during the 1980s. Not only was he good at the game, but as a wide receiver, he had a decorated career. During the day he would go to football practice and during the night Melvin would study for graduate school after he enrolled to study material science engineering, according to his interview with AARP.

Not long after he was drafted by the Detroit Lions, in the NFL, Melvin injured his hamstring which ultimately cut his career in professional football short. He did not let this stop him from achieving other dreams.

Once he completed his master’s degree in material science engineering, the start of his career at NASA began. In 1998, he went on to apply for the NASA astronaut program and began training at Johnson Space Center.

During this training, a complication with his suit caused him to go deaf in both ears.

“After emergency surgery in the hospital, the world-renowned ear, nose and throat doctors said that they don’t know what happened to me and that I would never fly in space,” he said.

Although he regained hearing in his right ear three weeks later, with the left ear still being damaged, Melvin knew that his career as an astronaut would be over. That was until the chief flight surgeon, Dr. Rich S. Williams, gave him the clearance to still fly.

“He felt if I could effectively clear my ears, then there’d be no reason why I shouldn’t be able to fly in space. He believed in me,” said Melvin. “I got this get-out-of-jail-free card. I head back to Houston. And, soon after that, I get assigned to a mission.”

Melvin went on to fly on space shuttle missions, STS-122 (2008) and STS-129 (2009) before retiring in 2014.

“No matter what gifts that you’ve been blessed to have, lifelong learning and reinvention can also take the gifts that you have, [and] enhance them in a way that you can share them with the next generation of explorers,” said Melvin, according to Face 2 Face Africa.

Congratulations to Leland Melvin on defying the odds stacked against him to become a successful astronaut!