- Leland Melvin – a Black astronaut, engineer, and NFL football player – recently hosted NASA TV’s coverage of the first crewed rocket launch by SpaceX on May 30.
- Before the launch, Melvin juxtaposed the mission with the police killing of George Floyd. “America, let’s get our crap together, this is unsatisfactory. We gotta stop this,” he said.
- Bill Nye later interviewed the astronaut about his life, career, and struggles with racism. Melvin told Nye that, as a new high-school graduate, he was nearly arrested on false charges.
- “You and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now because I would have been in prison,” Melvin said, had the incident resulted in his arrest. “Once you get in that system, it’s sometimes very hard to get out.”
- Melvin said it’s not enough just to be a “good” person when it comes to racism: “If you sit there and watch and allow that atrocity to take place … you’re a part of the problem.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Leland Melvin launched to orbit twice aboard NASA space shuttles. Long before his decorated astronaut career, though, Melvin was a materials science engineer and even got drafted by the NFL to play for the Detroit Lions.
But in a conversation with famed science communicator Bill Nye, who’s the president of the nonprofit Planetary Society, Melvin revealed a moment where his future hung in the balance – between a meteoric career and the prison system – because of the colour of his skin.
In 1982, Melvin had just graduated from Heritage High School in Lynchburg, Virginia, and was enjoying his time off before heading to the University of Richmond, where he’d go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
“I was in a car with my girlfriend after graduation, and a police officer rolls up on us,” Melvin told Nye, each of whom are friends, in a YouTube video published by the Planetary Society. “We were just making out, talking, whatever.”
When the state trooper approached the car, Melvin said the officer pulled his girlfriend out and put her into his cruiser. While in his custody, the officer tried “to convince her that I was raping her, because he wanted me to go to jail,” Melvin said.
“He said, ‘If you don’t say that he’s raping you, I’m gonna take you to jail, your parents are going to have to come get you, and then you’re going to have a record,'” he added, paraphrasing the officer’s words to his girlfriend at the time. “She said, ‘No, I love him, he’s my boyfriend, he’s going to college on a football scholarship, he’s this and that,”” and that she was headed to college, too.
Eventually, Melvin said the officer gave up and let them go.
Had he been arrested on false charges, Melvin told Nye, “you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because I would have been in prison in the prison system. And once you get in that system, it’s sometimes very hard to get out of that system.”
‘America, let’s get our crap together’
Melvin provided live commentary on NASA TV in a joint broadcast with SpaceX during the mission’s launch. On May 30, the two men soared to space inside the private company’s new Crew Dragon spaceship atop a Falcon 9 rocket.
But after a scrubbed launch attempt on May 27 – as the US was reeling with protests over a white police officer’s killing of George Floyd, a Black man, just two days earlier (among other killings earlier in the year) – Melvin stepped onto Cocoa Beach in Florida to record his thoughts in a video he later uploaded to Instagram.
“This has got to stop. There’s a pandemic now against Black men in this country, and I truly feel that it’s hatred, it’s evil, it’s racism – it’s all of these things – but it’s the good people beside these people [who] are complicit, that allow this continue to go on,” Melvin said in the video, which was later highlighted in a Space.com story.
“I am heartbroken … I’m looking at the juxtaposition of doing the most technologically advanced thing – sending people to space – but a man dies in police custody?” he added. “America, let’s get our crap together. This is unsatisfactory. We’ve got to stop this. And it’s going to be the good people that do nothing now that start doing something to stamp this hatred, evil, and racism out.”
During his chat with Nye, Melvin explained the connection he felt in watching the video of Floyd’s death. (Derek Chauvin, the officer in Minneapolis now charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, kneeled on Floyd’s neck as the man pleaded not only to breathe, but for his mother.)
“Bill, I started crying,” Melvin said. “I think, that could have been me, that could have been Bobby Satcher [Jr.] – the first time two African American men were in space together – on STS 129,” Melvin said, referring to his last spaceflight in November 2009.
Melvin told Nye he is “great friends” with police officers who believe strongly in protecting and serving their communities. He also expressed optimism that things could change if the “good people” stop watching, step off the sidelines, and consistently speak out against racism they see while also pushing for reforms of racist policies and systems that have persisted in America for generations.
“I think we’re in an inflection point in our country, really in the world, with civil rights,” he said.
Of the Black Lives Matter movement, and addressing the refrain among unsympathetic supporters that “all lives matter,” Melvin acknowledged the hurt of other communities. But he emphasised the all-too-often deadly consequences of systemic racism and unconscious bias against Black people, whom police use more frequently use force against, and are disproportionatelykilled relative to other races on a per-capita basis.
“‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean that all lives don’t matter. There’s a pandemic in the Black community now that’s causing our lives to be squashed out,” Melvin said. “So we have to focus on the Black lives right now.”
Watch the whole discussion between Melvin and Nye
This story has been updated with additional information.