Review: Chasing Space

Chasing Space: An Astronaut’s Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances
by Leland Melvin
Amistad, 2017
hardcover, 256 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-06-249672-0

It’s long been noted in the space community that you have better odds of becoming a professional athlete than a NASA astronaut, but a closer look at the numbers show how great the difference really is. The NCAA noted that, in 2016, there were 16,369 college football players eligible for the NFL draft; 251 of them were drafted, a rate of just 1.5 percent. But in NASA’s latest astronaut selection round, completed last month, NASA received more than 18,300 applications, of which it selected 12, a rate of less than 0.07 percent.

Remarkably, one person has managed to beat those odds twice. Leland Melvin was drafted by the NFL’s Detroit Lions in 1986, but hamstring injuries kept him from making pro football a career for him. Twelve years later, NASA selected him as an astronaut, but another injury sustained during training nearly kept him grounded. How he persevered, as an astronaut and elsewhere in life, is the topic of his memoir, Chasing Space.

Melvin was not, he says in the book, someone who dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a kid. He was interested in science growing up in Lynchburg, Virginia, but also in sports, becoming a star wide receiver at his high school and, later, at the University of Richmond. When his brief football career came to an end—he was cut in training camp by the Lions and, later, by the Dallas Cowboys—he focused on materials science, going to graduate school at the University of Virginia with plans to work for a company.

A chance encounter with a NASA recruiter at a career fair, though, changed that trajectory: Melvin went to work at NASA’s Langley Research Center on fiber optics. When a colleague, Charles Camarda, was selected as an astronaut, it dawned on him that he could become one as well. NASA selected him as part of the 1998 class.

His future, though, was in jeopardy after an incident in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in April 2001, as he was beginning spacewalk training. A device used to help relive the pressure in his head was missing from his suit, and he ended up damaging his ears, resulting in temporary deafness. He was ineligible for flight assignments for years as he worked to recover his hearing and convince doctors he could fly in space. He was ultimately successful, and flew on the STS-122 and STS-129 shuttle missions to help assemble the International Space Station, and later served as NASA’s associate administrator for education.

There is, as one would expect from his life story—and a book that mentions “grit” and “second chances” in its title—a lot of discussion about the importance of perseverance, and the values of family, friends, and faith. There is also, for Melvin, the struggles of dealing with racism, which continued even after becoming an astronaut, as he moved into a lily-white neighborhood near the Johnson Space Center: “I’ll never forget the day I moved in. A woman across the street stared at me, her arms folded across her chest. ‘Hi!’ I said and waved to her. But she just shook her head and walked into her house. Thanks for the warm welcome, neighbor.”

At times, particularly during the latter portions as he recounts his post-NASA career, the book lags a bit, reading at times more like an itinerary of events and encounters with famous people. (And, curiously, the book consistently misspells the name of the shuttle orbiter as “Endeavor”.) Nonetheless, Chasing Space is an entertaining book that offers lessons in overcoming obstacles to achieving goals, even when the odds—be it being a professional athlete or astronaut—are long.