Former NFL player turned NASA astronaut Leland Melvin has been on something of a crusade ever since he first rocketed into space in 2008 and stared down awestruck at planet Earth from 240 miles above.
“I was just shocked and in awe to see how blue the planet was,” recalls Melvin. “I was looking down at the Caribbean, trying to describe the colors I saw and quickly exhausted the vocabulary I had for the word ‘blue’ — like azure, indigo, cerulean, turquoise, navy blue … I needed 20 more names of blues to describe the hues that I saw.”
The 54-year-old engineer, who served on two Space Shuttle Atlantis missions, is putting his “love affair” with his planetary home to good use by helping narrate the 10-part National Geographic documentary One Strange Rock that airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET.
Hosted by Will Smith, the series — filmed on six continents and in outer space — explores the unlikely and often improbable story of how planet Earth became home to human life.
And who better to help tell that story than Melvin — and seven other astronauts who represent a handful of the 562 humans to have ever ventured off our planet and into the dark, mysterious void of space?
A standout wide receiver at the University of Richmond, Melvin—who earned a master’s degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia—insists that playing football proved to be perfect training for the rigors of space travel.
“The thing about football is that when it gets really noisy in the stadium a quarterback and a wide receiver have to have this nonverbal ability to communicate as the coverage changes,” says Melvin, who spent two years with the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys in the mid-1980s but retired after recurring hamstring injuries.
“You have to have that same ability to communicate when you’re on the flight deck, working together as a team to get to space in those eight and a half minutes [after lift-off]. Some really bad things can happen if you’re not in sync during that time.”
After being selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 1998, he spent 23 days orbiting Earth as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Atlantis and on STS-122.
“My time up there changed the way I view the planet and the people on it,” Melvin says. “Now it’s my obligation and duty to come home and share what I learned with as many people as possible, so that they can feel what I did through my stories.”
Watch a clip of One Strange Rock above.