Leland addressed racial inequality in the United States at a panel entitled “Celebrating Black Lives in the Space Industry,” part of an online summit pushing for Mars exploration by 2030.
“I remember, I was in high school, and I was in a car with my girlfriend, and a police officer rolled up on us,” Melvin said. “He took her out of the car and told her that I was raping her because he wanted me to go to jail. And, you know, when young Black men get into the prison system, that they really never get out and have a second chance.”
Melvin said that all fathers in the Black community advise their sons to be “real respectful” when addressing law enforcement, adding that he was more nervous speaking with that officer than he ever felt on a shuttle blasting through the atmosphere.
“I’ve been into space two times. I’ve ridden this rocket with millions of pounds of thrust, and not once was I afraid of going to space,” Melvin said. “It’s when I’ve been stopped by police officers that I didn’t even know that I was starting to sweat and that I was holding the steering wheel really hard.”
Anti-racism needs to be instilled in everyone, Melvin said, adding that it is worth considering matters from an astronaut’s point of view.
“When we look at the planet from the space station, if any one of us makes a mistake, we’re all gone,” Melvin said. “We need to bring that reality back down here to Earth, especially when we go to Mars.”
Melvin retired from NASA in 2014 after flying on the space shuttle Atlantis in 2008 and 2009 and working to build the International Space Station.
Before that, the Detroit Lions drafted him in 1986 to play football until hamstring injuries ended his professional career. He is the only NFL player to go into space.
Watch the entire panel below.