How I overcame disability to become a NASA astronaut

An astronaut had to overcome hearing loss to get to fly to space.

When you get into the astronaut corp there are two things that you have to demonstrate to fly on either a shuttle or a space station mission. And they are the ability to go into this 300-pound suit and do something called space walking. And the way that you train for that is you get in this white suit that's pressurized and you go down 25 feet in a 5 million gallon pool to simulate building and creating the space station underneath the pool deck. And there's a submerged space station and a submerged space shuttle, so that's how you demonstrate that. And when I had my chance to train in that environment I had an accident where I lost all of my hearing. And they operated on my ear, they went and looked around they couldn't find anything. They told me I would never fly in space.

So for a while there after my hearing did slowly come back in my right ear, I'm deaf in this ear, they told me that we're going to have to figure out what to do with you. And that was a really tough time for me because I had never thought of myself becoming an astronaut, but once I got into the astronaut program then I was solitarily focused on trying to do this thing. And they sent me to Washington DC to work in education. We were choosing teachers to become astronauts. And one of those astronauts was Ricky Arnold who just came home about two months ago doing education in space, doing space walks, doing all these things.

And while I was kicking this program off and helping him run this program I was driving from DC to my hometown Lynchburg Virginia and I get a phone call from my boss at the time, who is new to NASA, and she says, "Leland, what does it mean when the space shuttle countdown clock is now counting up?" And I said, "How much is it counting up?" She's says, "It's 10 seconds, it's 15 seconds." And this was Space Shuttle Columbia. And that moment I knew that all my friends were dead.

And so I turned around and drove back to DC to headquarters and they sent to me to David Brown's parent's home in a Washington Virginia to console his family who just lost their son in this most tragic horrific way. And I'm going to the house and I get to the door and I hug his mother Dottie and I walk over to his father and his father says to me with tears in his eyes he says, "Leland, my son is gone. There is nothing you can do to bring him back, but the biggest tragedy would be if we don't continue to fly in space to honor their legacy." And I'm trying to figure out how I will honor their legacy if I'm not going to fly in space because I'm medically disqualified. Long story short, as we go to the memorial services the chief of all the flight surgeons watches me clear my ears as we take off and land in the NASA airplane and he signs me a waiver to fly in space. And I go back to Houston and I get assigned to a fly even though I don't have any hearing in my left ear.

And so that was trying to stay focused on the task of helping others get ready for missions, still doing my job at NASA, whether it was in education or robotics or whatever I was doing. And I had friends telling me you should quit NASA, you should sue them, write the tell all book and get paid. And I wasn't raised like that. My parents always taught me to try to do the right thing. No matter what happens to you stay focused and try to do the right things.

That was one of the hardest things that had happened just to stay focused on the mission when I'm internalizing all of my own, you know, am I going to fly? I'm never going to hear in this year. The chords and the overtones don't sound the same on the piano as they used to because I had perfect hearing. And then when I got that piece of paper that says you're now free to fly and getting that first mission, 3-2-1 lift off, thinking of honoring the legacy of my friends that had passed because that's what his father told me to do the night of the accident. And I did that and it was perfect. And we install things and we build the space station and it was just an amazing transformation from being at one of the lowest points in my life in the hospital bed not hearing, I couldn't hear a bomb drop, to now flying in space and building something incredible.

  • Leland Melvin was told he'd never be an astronaut after he lost all his hearing.
  • He got a chance to fly to space and honor the legacy of his friends after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
  • Leland worked on building the space station in an "amazing transformation" from the lowest point in his life.

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