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Inspiring future astronauts

Leland Melvin is former US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut, who served as a mission specialist for two flights aboard space shuttle the Atlantis. Following his stint as a spaceman, he was appointed head of NASA’s Office of Education and also served as co-chair of the White House’s Federal Coordination in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Task Force. Melvin was also the US representative and chair of the International Space Education Board, a global collaboration on learning about space. What is more, he is the only professional football player to ever travel to space.  He uses his life story as an athlete, astronaut, scientist, engineer, photographer and musician to inspire the next generation to pursue a career in STEM fields. As part of its work towards inspiring young and talented girls to take up STEM, the American Embassy in Addis recently invited Melvin to give talks to school children, girls, university students as well as the wider public. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter caught up with Melvin and asked him about his work as an astronaut and his views on the prospect of seeing African astronauts. Excerpts: 


The Reporter: You have no doubt inspired many during talks at the Addis Ababa University and elsewhere. Apart from being an astronaut, you have been a football player, musician, engineer and author. How do you manage to be such a versatile person? 

Leland Melvin: I grew up in a community both with my parents and mid-school teachers. They instilled in me anything I do today. One of the things they taught me was how to use my time 24 hours. They taught me how to use my time wisely. I love doing certain things. I love playing sports. I love photography and I love playing piano and music. I spend my time doing those things. Another thing that helped me to do what I am doing now is I love physics and mathematics. I think sometimes we assume we can’t do multiple things because it’s a mindset that has already limited our ability. It tells you can only do one thing at one time. But if you love doing many things, then why not try to do all those things if you use your time wisely. You be good at a lot of different things. It has also to do with the people who believe in me –having a role model, mentor and friends, those having my back in case something happens because I had all kinds of obstacles in my life. I had survived abuses and almost got arrested while I was in high school. I [briefly] lost my hearing [during a training accident at NASA]. Once I was kicked out of college because of cheating. All these things happened since I have perseverance and believed in second chances.

So, you are saying that it is possible to have a finger in every pie?

I am proof that it is possible. There was nothing special about me. I just worked hard and tried. People around me helped me a lot and I did have those obstacles, which helped me to get through life.

For many people, meeting with an astronaut in person is inspirational, and it doesn’t happen that often.  What is the first thing people usually say when they meet you?

First, they don’t believe it. You give them your business card that says you are an astronaut but they don’t believe it. But when you tell them what you have done and what you have seen from space then they start realizing that it is true. A lot of times when people watch television, they see astronauts and tend to say they don’t look like us. They might even say we have a different skin color than normal people. One of the things I really want to do is that kids see anyone in an astronaut’s suit is what they can also become. The first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) was Peggy Whitson (PhD). She was at the helm, and there were colonels, generals and those people had to answer to her. Until you start breaking those boundaries, you can’t be inspiring others. These girls seeing very amazing woman like Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan who had calculated how to get us to space. These kids see that and they know it has been done before. Then they can do it as well. That is how we can get the message out there—showing people that look like us or like anyone can do it even better.

I assume less is known about the world beyond our planet. Hence, do you think we have only a limited understanding of the Solar System and the universe beyond?

This thing we have between our ears [the brain] we probably don’t use one- thousands of the capacity that we have up here. I think we limit ourselves. We might have a gross mindset or a fixed mindset. Most of the times when we have fixed mindsets, that are confined to this planet, that are confined to gravity, sometimes we can’t think out of the box and we limit ourselves to the only thing we know. Hence, what we are trying to tell kids is that they should know they shouldn’t limit themselves regardless of where they are from, the environment or what they don’t have. With their brains, with knowledge and with access to education, they would know how to change things for better and help others.

How is life in space and how do you guys manage to get along out there, and could you also say something comparing it with life on earth?

In space, it’s about a family because the people you are at space with, you are depending on them to do the right thing. All our lives are still here and I think the more you train with someone, the more you work with someone, you get to be comfortable with them. You are living in that environment where you go around the planet every 90 minutes, the sun rises and sets every 45 minutes, and you don’t have people to fight against. If that is how people work together in that smaller space—not to fight or not to have wars and not all that—we can do the same out here. That is the message that I would like to give out. It’s a perspective of seeing our planet. Our planet is like a space. We are on a spaceship. Right now, we are sitting on a spaceship going around the sun every 365 days. From the perspective of that, we need to see what we are doing as a civilization on this spaceship earth, and we need to help one another to get better.

I heard you say no time for politics or for squabbles in space because you all depend on one another. Differences of race or nationality don’t matter; you all act like a family out there and that’s very fascinating, I think. 

We should bring all these different flavors of cultures and people together. We have all kinds of problems in this planet right now—poverty, famine, lack of drinking water and all these things. The more people you can get together with different ideas, the better solution you would get to solve these problems. There is an Ethiopian space program, which Solomon [Belay (PhD)], director general of theEthiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI)] runs. They are working on a project to put a satellite up there so that you can view back at the Ethiopian landscape, may be helping to understand how many people need help around or how to do agriculture. That is just one step towards the future using technology to solve problems down here.

That is one of the things you mentioned to schoolchildren here. You raised the proposed memorandum of understanding (MoU) that would be signed between ESSTI and NASA. Could you tell me more about that? 

We want to have that agreement and that is something the US Embassy in Addis is working on in collaboration with Ethiopian officials.

Could you also say a little more about the Ethiopian satellite you mentioned would be launched to space? You said it would weight about 65 kg, right?

The satellite would weight 65kg, but I don’t know the details. You would need to find out that. But it’s going to be sent to space to observe back into Ethiopia. It is also going to be a source of inspiration for students here. It would let students see that people from Ethiopia can build and create such things by their own hands that can go to space. How inspirational that could be! You might have a kid that has no hope but sees what other students have done. Even that kid, because of the inspiration, one day might be able to cure polio or cure cancer. You just don’t know what the possibilities are if you can get that spark. That is unlimited. There is so much capacity out there. If you can get people working for one goal, you can change the world. Think about 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Less than 10 years before that, there was nothing, that sort of technology and know-how. In less than ten years, we sent astronauts that landed on the moon. The country, the resources and the people behind it, made it all possible. The same is possible in Ethiopia. You are 100 million people and that means a lot of potential. I have seen a lot of brilliant people here. I met with brilliant and smart school kids and one of them asked tough questions, a few of which I couldn’t even answer. That’s the most important thing, to let kids know that no matter where they came from, no matter what they are going through, and no matter what they see, they still have that open optimism.

We have heard inspiring stories about Ethiopian-Americans with distinguished careers in STEM, like physicist Solomon Bililign (PhD). But I would like to ask you about the number of Ethiopians, and perhaps Africans, who are currently working at NASA?

No matter where one comes from there’s an opportunity for all. He just got there and done his PhD. Think about how many kids that can do that. They have got to do a lot of stuff with outreach and help these kids to think about more than who they are. They are bigger than themselves.

Africa used to be considered a “dark continent” with all the problems it had. But perceptions seem to be changing, albeit rather slowly. Is it too ambitious to entertain the thought that Africa would produce an astronaut in the foreseeable future?

Yes, I definitely believe in that.

What gives you that level of confidence?

Because I think what Solomon [of ESSTI] is doing shows that you have the spark here. You have that spark and it comes into flame to be a raging fire. If you can keep that spark alive, and with intensity, yes, why not? This brain we have is very hot. There is a lot of energy that goes to fuel our brain. They can take that energy and turn it into tangible things that can help people down here on the planet. But also, can do bigger than that. That is what inspires most people to do great things.

What is the probability for that to be realized?

I think you have politicians making policies. But it’s people at the grassroots with the leaders coming together to say we are going to do better. That’s how it happens. There are promising children.

What is your worst night mare as an astronaut?

Our nightmare would be that one day all of us wouldn’t get along. The things that I dream about is when everyone is in harmony working together and everyone has access to what they need to be successful. 

How would you make it safe travelling to and from space? What are the chances of encountering mishaps?

I flew on 135 shuttle launches and had experienced two catastrophic failures. Those were the odds for that. Any time you explore, any time you paddle across the oceans, anytime you are in any exploration, there will be loss of life or failure. But the exploration is worth the benefit you can get out of the journey. For instance, LCD [liquid-crystal display] screens of smart phones are from the space technology.

What does it feel like looking down to earth from space? I would imagine it is awe-inspiring?

Looking at the Caribbean, looking down at the oceans and seeing the different colors, you almost need new definitions of colors to describe what you see. It’s so enthralling and beautiful. Coming over Africa, seeing the Sahara, the Nile and coming down the western coast of Africa and seeing thunderstorms that lighten up the entire sky is magical. You see all the continents, and all these things are amazing. Seeing all the people working there, thriving and loving is inspiring.