Former NASA Astronaut Says Getting Stopped by Police as a Black Man Is Scarier Than Going to Space

"It's when I've been stopped by police officers that I didn't even know... I was starting to sweat and just holding the steering wheel really hard," Leland Melvin said

Leland Melvin
Leland Melvin. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty

Leland Melvin has logged more than 565 hours in space, gone on two separate missions to help build the International Space Station and traveled around Earth at 17,500 miles per hour — but none of that compares to the fear and anxiety he feels while being pulled over by a police officer.

While speaking on a panel Monday about Black lives in the space industry as part of the 2020 Virtual Humans to Mars Summit, the former NASA astronaut, who is Black, revealed he always felt apprehensive about interacting with cops due to the color of his skin.

"I've been on this rocket with millions of pounds of thrust and not once was I afraid of going to space," Melvin, 56, shared, according to CNN. "It's when I've been stopped by police officers that I didn't even know ... I was starting to sweat and just holding the steering wheel really hard."

"Every father in the Black community has a conversation with their son to tell them that if you get stopped by an officer... you assume the position, which is 10-2 [hands on the wheel], look straight ahead," he continued. "You tell the officer, you know, you're real respectful, you say you're reaching for your obvious things."

Melvin explained that his perspective on police officers was shaped from the time he was young, recalling one particular moment from his high school years that occurred while he was in the car with his then-girlfriend, the outlet reported.

"I was in a car with my girlfriend and a police officer rolled up on us," he said. "He took her out of the car and told her that I was raping her because he wanted me to go to jail."

"And you know, when Black men get into the prison system, they really never get out and have a second chance. I was going to college on scholarship and want to be a chemistry major,"explained Melvin, who eventually graduated from Heritage High School in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1982.

As it turned out, Melvin went on to have an incredibly successful career with NASA — though it wasn't always his first choice.

Growing up, Melvin said he never wanted to be an astronaut because he never saw "someone who looks like me," CNN reported.

Eventually, he was drafted by the NFL to play for the Detroit Lions in 1986, according to NASA. He later joined the Dallas Cowboys and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, but injuries ultimately caused him to retire.

In 1989, he started his career with NASA, working at the Langley Research Center to help to develop fiber optic sensors, which were used to check for hydrogen leaks on the space shuttles, NASA reported.

Then one of Melvin's colleagues, Charlie Camarda, got into the astronaut program and told him he thought he'd make a great astronaut.

"[I thought] 'If that guy can get in, I can get in,' and that's when I applied," Melvin recalled to the panel, according to CNN.

In 1998, he was finally accepted to the astronaut program and went on to help install the European Space Agency's Columbus Laboratory on the International Space Station in 2008, CNN reported.

The achievement also earned him the title as the only person drafted into the NFL to have flown in space, according to Melvin's website.

Along with being an astronaut, Melvin has also served as head of NASA Education, the co-chair on the White House’s Federal Coordination in STEM Education Task Force and the United States representative and chair of the global collaboration, International Space Education Board (ISEB), according to NASA.

As he reflected on his career during Monday's panel, Melvin urged for more diversity and backed his argument by sharing a story about being invited to the Russian segment of the Space Station in 2008 by fellow NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the station.

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Melvin said he, Whitson and astronauts of Russian, French, German, African American and Asian American backgrounds all came together to share a meal as they orbited Earth every 90 minutes and traveled at 17,500 miles per hour, CNN reported.

"That was when my head exploded, and I had this epiphany about our planet and looking back at it, getting this thing called the orbital perspective," he shared. "I think we as a civilization need to take that thing that we get in space as astronauts. And we know that if we don't work together as a team, and we were one of the most diverse teams in space, then we [would] perish."

Learning of George Floyd's death in May — which happened days before the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon shuttle — had a deep impact on Melvin.

"I see this Black man getting his life snuffed out, saying he can't breathe. And when I heard him calling for his mother, that's when I started crying because I thought about my mother. I thought about if that was me, being the life snuffed out of me," he recalled, according to CNN. "If we can [send people to the International Space Station], we can do anything. We can fix these problems."

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