Astronaut Leland Melvin to Deliver 10th Annual Bunshaft Lecture

Former NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin trains inside a space station mockup at the Johnson Space Center in 2009.
Former NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin, seen training for a space shuttle mission in 2009, will deliver the 10th Annual Bunshaft Lecture on Thursday, Oct. 5. (James Blair/NASA)

By Michael Parker

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 2, 2023)—Former NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin served for 24 years with NASA, including two missions on the Space Shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station. But if not for a hamstring injury while trying out for the Dallas Cowboys in 1987, Melvin may never have found his way into space.

On Thursday, Melvin will deliver the 10th Annual Bunshaft Lecture at the University at Albany’s Performing Arts Center. The event, scheduled for 7 p.m., is free and open to the public. The lecture is hosted by UAlbany’s College of Nanotechnology, Science, and Engineering (CNSE). Registration is now open.

After getting selected in the 11th round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions, Melvin caught three passes for 45 yards in during the preseason before being waived. Melvin signed with the Cowboys before the 1987 season, but his opportunity was cut short when running a deep route for quarterback Danny White while legendary coach Tom Landry was on the field.

“I went full throttle and I ended up pulling my hamstring again. That was pretty much the end of my football career right there,” said Melvin. “As I reflect on the moment now, it’s safe to say that Danny White helped me get to space."

After returning to college to earn a master’s degree in material science engineering, Melvin began working for NASA, where he applied for the Astronaut Candidate Program in 1997. A year later, he was one of 25 selected for the program from a pool of about 2,500.

Melvin flew two missions to the International Space Station, STS-122 in 2008—the primary objective of which was to deliver the Columbus science laboratory to the station — and STS-129 in 2009 to deliver supplies and scientific equipment.

While missing out on his NFL dream, Melvin never has regretted the way his career path changed.

“I believe my purpose and passion is to help inspire that next generation of explorers,” said Melvin. “And I truly think that’s my calling as I reflect on some of the things that have happened in my life.”

Melvin later led NASA Education and co-chaired the White House’s Federal Coordination in STEAM Education Task Force, developing the nation’s 5-year STEAM education plan. He holds six honorary doctorates for his service in education, the sciences and philanthropy.

In May 2017, Melvin released his memoir, "Chasing Space: An Astronaut's Story of Grit, Grace, and Second Chances." In it he shares his personal journey from the gridiron to space. He discusses the roles of community, perseverance and grace that aligned for him to create opportunities for success.

The Bunshaft Endowment in the College of Nanotechnology, Science, and Engineering, established through the generosity of Albert Bunshaft ’80 and Caryn Bunshaft ’82, provides support for the Bunshaft Lecture, designed to provide  the student community a broad range of topics related to careers in computing and engineering sciences.

“Mr. Melvin is a role model for everyone, especially UAlbany students,” said Al Bunshaft, ’90. “We hope that his pursuit of unimagined opportunities while persevering through barriers inspires new generations of scientists, engineers and explorers.”

“Leland Melvin serves as an outstanding role model to today’s engineering and computer science students —he provides first-hand evidence that perseverance is tremendously important as we move along our path of education and professional opportunities,” said College of Nanotechnology, Science, and Engineering Dean Michele J. Grimm. “We are excited to welcome him to campus, and we are ever grateful for the support that Al and Caryn Bunshaft continue to provide to our students and programs.”