RICHMOND, VA. (WRIC) — Two Virginia astronauts will be visiting the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, paying homage to a unique history while inspiring the next generation.
Lynchburg native Leland Melvin is an aerospace engineer and the only man drafted into the NFL to become a NASA astronaut. It was a career path he said he could’ve never imagined.
“All I knew — when I was little — was that I liked science because of a chemistry set my mother gave me and I blew up her living room,” Melvin said.
But not to be outdone, Hampton native Dr. Robert Satcher is a chemical engineer and surgeon who found enough free time to become an astronaut too.
“Fortunately, I had parents who just encouraged that kind of dreaming and pursuing,” Dr. Satcher said.
Both men achieved incredible milestones, but one of their highest honors took place in 2009. It was the first time two Black men flew in space together.
“It was like, hey, this is significant. Because more, especially young Black boys need to see, especially from Virginia, that what is possible, what is your mission possible,” Melvin said.
NASA introduced the country’s first astronauts in 1959, but it wasn’t until the late 2000s when the world finally saw multiple African Americans orbiting the earth together.
“That’s pretty shocking that it took that long, right?” Dr. Satcher said.
To that end, Melvin and Satcher will be reflecting on the legacy of Black astronauts at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
America’s first Black astronaut was Guy Bluford in 1983, but the Soviets beat the U.S. in 1980 by launching Tamayo Mendez, the first man of African descent into space.
America came very close to being the pioneer in the 1960s.
“We were going to fly Ed Dwight, who was chosen by Kennedy and his team to be the first Black astronaut to help him get the Black vote… he would have been a moonwalker and that didn’t happen because, you know, the president was killed,” Melvin said.
But now, the future looks bright, with minorities slated for lunar missions later this decade.
Melvin and Satcher hope this representation inspires the next generation.
“We never know where, you know, contributions are going to come from in terms of the next Einstein… they don’t necessarily have to have crazy hair, right? You know, they may be bald, Black with a beard,” Melvin added.
These men proved that anything is possible and yet, there are still more barriers to break.
Leland Melvin and Dr. Robert Satcher will be speaking at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on Wednesday, Oct. 25 and with students on the Thursday, Oct. 26.