Out-of-This-World Visitor Lands at UVA

January 23, 2024
Leland Melvin signs kid's space suit

Leland Melvin, a UVA master’s alumnus and astronaut, autographs the sleeve of a young fan’s spacesuit. (Photo by Tom Daly)

Wide-eyed spectators packed the Rice Hall auditorium last week to get a sneak peek at a new documentary about Black astronauts, but the real draw was one of the film’s stars: University of Virginia alumnus Leland Melvin. 

Melvin kept the audience of local school kids and UVA students and faculty as focused as the fiery space shuttle boosters that twice lofted him into orbit. He recounted his story of a dream chased and lost, and how still-bigger dreams made him an astronaut, author and now a film producer.

New Proof We Can Use Nature To Heal Nature, Learn More
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The Lynchburg native was a scholarship football star at the University of Richmond and was drafted by the Detroit Lions, but a preseason injury ended his dreams of a pro career. He then went to work for NASA, earned a master’s degree from UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and, in 1998, began training with the NASA Astronaut Corps.

Leland flew twice on the space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station, in 2008 and 2009.

group takes selfie with Leland Melvin

Melvin’s visit to UVA was, in part, meant to inspire the next generation of space explorers, especially future Black astronauts. Of the more than 350 astronauts who have ventured into space, only 15 have been Black. (Photo by Tom Daly)

On Friday at UVA, Melvin recounted his improbable life journey as part of the Engineering School’s community events honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Melvin helped produce, and is featured in, “The Space Race,” a new National Geographic documentary that explores the contributions of Black astronauts. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, of the more than 350 astronauts who have blasted into space, just 15 were Black.

“The Space Race” premieres Feb. 12 on the National Geographic channel. It begins streaming the following day on Hulu and Disney+.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications