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The Coolest Astronaut In The Galaxy Talks Sade, 'Star Trek' And Why Struggling Is Key To Success

02/13/2015 05:57 pm ET | Updated Feb 13, 2015

Leland Melvin was propelled by many a rocket during his time as a NASA astronaut, but just two weeks ago the 50-year-old was launched to viral stardom by a single tweet.

While researching the Challenger explosion, reporter Adam Aton came across Melvin’s official NASA portrait from 2009. Within hours, Melvin’s self-described “big cheeseburger smile” -- and his two rescue dogs that he snuck into the photo -- were a big hit on the web.

“When you take your picture, you take your family,” Melvin told The Huffington Post. “But I wasn’t married and my family was all in Virginia, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I take my boys?’”

Melvin has since hung up his spacesuit, having retired from NASA exactly one year ago. Now, he hosts the Lifetime competition “Child Genius,” which is wrapping its first season. Melvin took some time to talk to The Huffington Post about having grit, the power of reinvention and the best music to jam to during an international space smorgasbord.

On Balancing Science And Art
“My mom gave me a chemistry set —one of these age-inappropriate non-OSHA certified things — when I was six or seven,” Melvin said. "I blew up her carpet and got a spanking, but that was something that really activated my brain to say ‘Hey, this science thing is cool.’"

As an educator, Melvin preaches STEAM -- which doesn’t have anything to do with blowing things up.

“I focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math,” Melvin said. “Arts has to be in there. When you think about arts and culture, that’s the thread that connects us all on the planet.”

On Embracing Failure As A Stepping Stone To Success
Drafted in 1986 by the Dallas Cowboys, Melvin had dreams of a football career. But a hamstring injury during practice dashed his hopes for good, and he continued with his education until he landed at NASA.

After years of intensive training, Melvin suffered another injury that once again threatened to end his career. At NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a giant pool used to train astronauts for spacewalking, a technician forgot to include a pad in Melvin's helmet that would allow him to clear his ears as he was submerged.

“When I came out of the water, I was completely deaf,” Melvin said. “Blood was coming out of one ear, the doctor was talking to me and I couldn’t hear anything."

After surgery and a three-week hospital stay, his hearing began to return -- but he was told he’d never fly in space.

Rather than quit NASA, Melvin went to Washington, D.C. to work in the administration’s education programs.

“That’s when we lost the space shuttle Columbia and all my friends,” Melvin said, his voice breaking as he spoke about the 2003 disaster, in which the shuttle was destroyed during re-entry after a 16-day space mission. “As we went around the country for the different memorial services, the chief flight surgeon said ‘I’m watching you clear your ears and I see the good work you’re doing for this country trying to inspire kids and teachers.’"

The surgeon signed a waiver for Melvin to fly in space.

“You have to have grit,” Melvin said. “What was that thing that got you over the edge? Grit comes from failure."

On Erasing Boundaries In Space
During a 2008 mission to the International Space Station, Melvin said the lead commander invited his team to a meal: “‘You bring the rehydrated vegetables, we have the meat.’"

"We’re having this meal, we’re floating food to each other’s mouths and listening to Sade on the computer — I think 'Smooth Operator' is playing,” Melvin said.

“Then I looked back on the planet from the space station -- there are no borders. It’s one blue marble spinning below you. And here I am working with people from around the world we used to fight against: the Russians, the Germans. We were breaking bread and working in harmony at 17,500 miles per hour. If you had more people able to see this vantage point, it would shift and maybe make you want to do more good to save our civilization.”

On How ‘Star Trek’ Inspired Him
Space has always been ahead of the curve, even in pop culture, Melvin said. He cites ‘60s-era “Star Trek” for its diverse cast and depictions of interracial (and even interspecies) romance.

“[Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was trying to show a future of people living and working together, trying to show a future for the universe,” Melvin said. "I remember when Nichelle Nichols, who was playing Lt. Uhura, said she was going to quit 'Star Trek.' She was in a hotel in Georgia and met Dr. Martin Luther King and he told her she cannot quit. She was portraying a leader, an African-American woman on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. He saw her as one of the she-roes of the time."

On The Power Of Reinvention
"My dad was a science teacher. He played in a band for extra money,” Melvin said. "When I was six or seven he brought a bread truck home and said ‘This is our camper.’ I said ‘No, that’s a bread truck.’

“Over the summer, he worked to convert it into an RV for camping, because as teachers, it’s the cheapest way to take a vacation,” Melvin said. “I learned to be an engineer over that summer.

“That Marita Bread truck became our camper because my dad had the vision to take a $500 bread truck and take us around the country. You can have a vision for something even if other people can’t see it. You just have to actualize it."

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