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  • [This talk contains mature content]

  • In 1969, I was standing behind

  • a Sylvania black-and-white television set.

  • Hearing about these things happening on the set in the front,

  • I was the guy, you know,

  • moving the rabbit ears for my dad, and my sister and my mom.

  • "Move over here, turn over here, move this way, we can't see the screen."

  • And what they were watching

  • was: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

  • Neil [Armstrong] and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the Moon.

  • And I was five years old in Lynchburg, Virginia,

  • a skinny black kid in a kind of somewhat racist town.

  • And I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.

  • And my parents, you know, they were educators,

  • they'd said that you can do anything.

  • But after that moon landing, all the kids in the neighborhood

  • were like, "You're going to be an astronaut?"

  • I'm like, "No."

  • I don't want a buzz cut, and I don't see someone who looks like me.

  • Because representation does matter.

  • And I knew that there was a guy

  • five blocks down the street on Pierce Street

  • who was training to play tennis.

  • And it was Arthur Ashe.

  • And my dad talked about his character, his discipline,

  • his intelligence, his athleticism.

  • I wanted to be Arthur Ashe,

  • I didn't want to be one of those moon guys.

  • And as I went on through this journey,

  • my dad, who was a school teacher, he played in a band,

  • he did all these things to make money for my sister and I

  • to take piano lessons

  • and do these different things with education.

  • And he one day decides to drive up into the driveway with this bread truck.

  • And I'm thinking, "OK, bread truck,

  • me delivering bread while my dad's driving the truck."

  • I'm like, "OK, I'm going to be a bread guy now."

  • But he says, "This is our camper."

  • I'm like, "Dude, come one, I can read: 'Merita Bread and Rolls'

  • on the side of this truck.

  • And he says, "No, we're going to build this into our camper."

  • And over that summer, we rewired the entire electrical system.

  • We plumbed a propane tank to a Coleman stove,

  • we built bunk beds that flip down.

  • We were turning this into our summer vacation launch pad, escape pod,

  • this thing that could take us out of Lynchburg.

  • And before that,

  • I was actually raped at five by some neighbors.

  • And I didn't tell anyone,

  • because I had friends that didn't have fathers.

  • And I knew that my father

  • would have killed the people that did that to his son.

  • And I didn't want my father to be gone.

  • So as we got in this bread truck and escaped from Lynchburg,

  • it was my time with my dad.

  • And we went to the Smoky Mountains

  • and looked at the purple mountains' majesty.

  • And we walked along the beach in Myrtle Beach,

  • and this thing was transformative.

  • It showed me what it meant to be an explorer, at a very early age.

  • And I suppressed all that negativity,

  • all that trauma,

  • because I was learning to be an explorer.

  • And a little bit later, my mother gave me an age-inappropriate,

  • non-OSHA-certified chemistry set,

  • (Laughter)

  • where I created the most incredible explosion in her living room.

  • (Laughter)

  • And so I knew I could be a chemist.

  • So as I went on this journey through a high school,

  • and I went to college,

  • and I got a football scholarship to play football in college.

  • And I knew that I could be a chemist, because I'd already blown stuff up.

  • (Laughter)

  • And when I graduated,

  • I got drafted to the Detroit Lions.

  • But I pulled a hamstring in training camp,

  • and so what every former NFL player does, they go work for NASA, right?

  • So I went to work for NASA.

  • (Laughter)

  • And this friend of mine said, "Leland, you'd be great astronaut."

  • I just laughed at him, I was like, "Yeah, me, an astronaut?"

  • You know that Neil and Buzz thing from back in '69?

  • And he handed me an application, and I looked at it,

  • and I didn't fill it out.

  • And that same year, another friend of mine filled out the application

  • and he got in.

  • And I said to myself,

  • "If NASA's letting knuckleheads like that be astronauts,"

  • (Laughter)

  • "maybe I can be one, too."

  • So the next selection, I filled out the application, and I got in.

  • And I didn't know what it meant to be an astronaut:

  • the training, the simulations,

  • all these things to get you ready for this countdown:

  • three, two, one, liftoff.

  • And in 2007, I was in Space Shuttle "Atlantis," careening off the planet,

  • traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.

  • And eight and a half minutes later,

  • the main engines cut off, and we're now floating in space.

  • And I push off and float over to the window,

  • and I can see the Caribbean.

  • And I need new definitions of blue to describe the colors that I see.

  • Azure, indigo, navy blue, medium navy blue, turquoise

  • don't do any justice to what I see with my eyes.

  • And my job on this mission was to install

  • this two-billion dollar Columbus laboratory.

  • It was a research laboratory

  • for materials research, for human research.

  • And I reached into the payload bay of the space shuttle,

  • grabbed out this big module,

  • and I used the robotic arm and I attached it to the space station.

  • And the European team have been waiting 10 years for this thing to get installed,

  • so I'm sure everyone in Europe was like, "Leland! Leland! Leland!"

  • (Laughter)

  • And so this moment happened, this was our primary mission objective,

  • it was done.

  • And I had this big sigh of relief.

  • But then, Peggy Whitson, the first female commander,

  • she invited us over to the Russian segment.

  • And the space station's about the size of a football field,

  • with solar panel and trusses and all of these modules.

  • And she says, "Leland, you go get the rehydrated vegetables,

  • we have the meat."

  • So we float over with the bag of vegetables, all rehydrated,

  • and we get there.

  • And there's this moment

  • where I get [transported] back to my mother's kitchen.

  • You can smell the beef and barley heating up,

  • you can smell the food, the colors,

  • and there are people there from all around the world.

  • It's like a Benetton commercial,

  • you know, you have African American, Asian American, French, German, Russian,

  • the first female commander,

  • breaking bread at 17,500 miles per hour,

  • going around the planet every 90 minutes,

  • seeing a sunrise and a sunset every 45.

  • And Peggy would say, "Hey, Leland, try some of this,"

  • and she'd float it over to my mouth,

  • and I'd catch it and we'd go back and forth.

  • And we're doing all of this while listening to Sade's "Smooth Operator."

  • (Laughter)

  • I mean, this is like blowing my mind, you know.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I float over to the window, and I look down at the planet,

  • and I see all of humanity.

  • And my perspective changes at that moment,

  • because, I'm flying over Lynchburg, Virginia, my home town,

  • and my family's probably breaking bread.

  • And five minutes later, we're flying over Paris,

  • where Leo Eyharts is looking down at his parents,

  • probably having some wine and cheese,

  • and Yuri's looking off to Moscow,

  • and they're probably eating borscht or something else.

  • But we're all having this moment where we see our respective families

  • working together as one civilization,

  • at 17,500 miles per hour.

  • My perspective shifted cognitively,

  • it changed me.

  • And when I think about being that little skinny boy,

  • from sometimes racist Lynchburg, Virginia,

  • I would never have had that perspective

  • to think about myself of being an astronaut,

  • if my father hadn't taken us on a journey

  • in this radical craft that we built with our own two hands.

  • When I came home,

  • I realized that perspective is something

  • that we all get and we all have.

  • It's just how far do we open up our blinders

  • to see that shift and that change.

  • And going back to the space station,

  • I think of, you know, Germans and Russians fighting Americans.

  • We have these people living and working together.

  • White folks, black folks, Russian folks, French folks, you know.

  • All these different people coexisting in harmony as one race.

  • And I think about the colors that I saw, the design of the modules,

  • the way that things fit together,

  • the way that it made us a community, our home.

  • And so when I look up to space now,

  • and I have this newfound perspective

  • on the space station going overhead and looking there,

  • and then looking back at my community

  • and seeing the people that I'm living and working with,

  • and coexisting with,

  • I think it's something that we all can do now, especially in these times,

  • to make sure that we have the right perspective.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

  • Chee Pearlman: If you don't mind, could I just chat with you for a minute,

  • because they're going to set up some things here.

  • And I get to have you all to myself, OK.

  • Leland Melvin: Alright.

  • CP: You guys don't get to hear this.

  • So I have to tell you

  • that in my family, we watch a lot of space movies

  • about astronauts and stuff like that.

  • I can't tell you why, but we do.

  • (Laughter)

  • The thing that I wanted to ask you, though,

  • is that we were seeing this movie the other day,

  • and it was about one of the astronauts, one of your colleagues,

  • and before he went up into space,

  • they actually wrote an obituary, NASA wrote an obituary for him.

  • And I was like, is that normal?

  • And is that part of the job?

  • Do you think about that peril that you're putting yourself in

  • as you go into space?

  • LM: Yeah.

  • So, I don't remember anyone writing my obituary,

  • maybe that was an Apollo-day thing.

  • But I do know that in the 135 shuttle flights that we've had,

  • the shuttle that I flew on,

  • we had two accidents that killed everyone on that mission.

  • And we all know the perils and the risks that go along with this,

  • but we're doing something that's much bigger than ourselves,

  • and helping advance civilization,

  • so the risk is worth the reward.

  • And we all feel that way when we get into that vehicle

  • ans strap into those million pounds of rocket fuel and go up to space.

  • CP: Yeah, I've only seen the Hollywood version --

  • it looks pretty terrifying, I have to tell you.

  • LM: You should go.

  • (Laughter)

  • CP: Yeah, my husband's told me that a few times.

  • (Laughter)

  • LM: One-way trip or two-way?

  • (Laughter)

  • CP: That's a bit of a debate in our house.

  • (Laughter)

  • I wanted to, if I may ...

  • You did touch on something that was very powerful and difficult,

  • which is, you spoke about this incident

  • that had happened to you when you were five years old,

  • and that you were raped.

  • And I just think that for you to be able to say those things,

  • you know, on the TED stage,

  • to be able to talk about that at all,

  • is pretty fearless.

  • And I wanted to get a sense from you,

  • is that something that you think is important for you to share that now,

  • to speak about it?

  • LM: It's so important, especially for men, to talk about things that have happened,

  • because we've been trained

  • and told by our society that we have to be so tough and so hard

  • and we can't tell of things that are happening to us.

  • But I've had so many men contact me and tell me that,

  • "You came through that, you got over that,

  • I'm going to get over my alcoholism,"

  • and these things that are going on in them,

  • because of what happened to them.

  • And so we must share these stories, this is part of storytelling,

  • to heal us and to make us whole as a community.

  • CP: That's wonderful.