Leland Melvin, NASA astronaut and University of Richmond alumnus, is leader-in-residence for the 2008-09 school year at the university's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

Leaders-in-residence are selected for professional accomplishments and demonstrated leadership. The scholars spend time on campus interacting with Jepson School faculty and students in discussions, lectures and activities. Previous leaders-in-residence include Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and former Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.

Melvin has worked at NASA for 19 years. As co-manager of the organization's Educator Astronaut Program, he travels the country encouraging student interest in science and technology. Earlier this year, Melvin and a crew of seven others flew on a 13-day, 5.3 million-mile mission to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Atlantis. He is scheduled for a second mission in the Fall of 2009.

A star student and football player at Richmond, Melvin was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 11th round of the 1986 NFL college draft. He was on the Dallas Cowboys roster when an injury ended his playing career, and he decided to pursue his interest in science. He has a master's degree in materials science engineering from the University of Virginia.

Below, he discusses some of his ideas about leadership and education and space. 

You have accomplished a tremendous amount in all areas of your life; from academics, to sports, to giving back to the community, to your career with NASA. As you reflect on your accomplishments, how have leaders forged the way for you and helped you along the way as advisors, mentors or cheerleaders? 

Before I came to Richmond I saw my parents were good leaders. They were both schoolteachers who set the tone in the community for what was expected of students and what was expected of my sister and me. It wasn’t so much what they said, but how they acted in a positive and supportive way. Other leaders in my life included coaches. Dr. Myers from the chemistry department was a mentor to me at Richmond. I did independent research with him all four years. 

I had a boss at NASA, Joe Heyman, whose leadership style was to say: “I’m going to give you full rein to be creative and explore. I’ll even give you the time you need in the place you need it to think about your next breakthrough.” Some leaders have to dictate every part of your day, but sometimes freeing the reins can release creativity.

All these types of leaders set the tone and expectation that help people understand the order of things. There are different leadership styles that you mold into your own. I think I’m more of a leader by example. Good leaders need to be good followers, or understand how to have others follow under their leadership. If someone can’t follow you under your leadership style then something isn’t going to work. Understanding the people you are in charge of leading is important.
What kind of training or development in leadership does NASA give its astronauts?

When we come in as astronaut candidates, we go through training modules where you’re just learning how the system works until you fly into space. You’re given leadership roles on that mission and/or you’re given more training. We do courses and training to promote leadership. We have a “leader of the day” who is in charge of the group’s exercises for that day. The true character of a person comes out under stress, and we simulate high-stress environments while we’re still on the ground so we know how people will respond. Then we can give astronauts tools to deal with pressure and ensure mission success.

Why are astronauts considered “leaders” by so many people?

Part of what we do is risky and is considered dangerous, and there are so many people supporting us. The mission we do is to help humankind through the exploration of our planet in the cosmos. A lot of times when you are out front carrying the banner you are considered the leader.

NASA is marking its 50-year anniversary. As a NASA insider, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing our nation’s space program today?

We have figured out how to work in a multinational environment with multibillion dollar hardware and low earth orbit. It takes about 8.5 minutes to get to space, three days to get to the moon, and six months to get to mars. I think the biggest challenge would be to go to Mars because it requires so much autonomy. If something happens on the space station, mission control can respond to it. There is a strong dependence there. But because the transmission times to the Martian surface are a lot long longer, you can’t have the same dependence on mission control.

John F. Kennedy inspired a nation with the race to the moon in the ‘60s. At this stage in NASA’s work, what leadership role should the next president take regarding space exploration and NASA programs and funding?

The next president’s leadership role should be to set the tone for what our country’s space vision is. We currently have a vision to finish building the space station. We have to build a replacement for the shuttle and get another mission to the moon. Going to the Martian surface with a human presence needs to be part of our vision. If that continues to be our vision for space, it’s important our administration gives the required funding to make that happen, as well as ensure that our planet’s health is sustained.

What responsibility does being a leader bring to a person’s life? 

One of the biggest responsibilities of a leader is to make sure that all opinions have the ability to make it to the leader’s desk. This kind of culture needs to be set up in the organization to make sure that happens. In the Columbia office, there were people with information who didn’t bring what they knew forward because the culture didn’t allow for that. If it had, there might have been a different result. A leader’s role is to ensure open and honest communication on all levels.

You have mentioned that you, like everyone, have faced obstacles and failure in your life.  In your speech to the Richmond graduates this year you said, “If you fail, which you will do, it’s how you pick up the pieces and keep going that matters.”

Few people have had the experience of space travel. What kind of a perspective does a journey like that give you?

When you’re heading into space, you take off and you have this massive explosion exiting the vehicle behind you. You are getting propelled to the heavens and you look back at the planet and see how small it is. And then you are going around the world every 90 minutes. You see the colors and there are no borders. The divisions are insignificant. We only have one planet and it looks extremely small from that vantage point.

How can you even begin to help people understand the experience of being in space? 

You try to share your experiences through video, personal accounts and presentations. But being in space really boils down to the people. It’s such a multinational endeavor. We had a melting pot of people on the flight. We just need to take that type of unity and harmony back to the planet.

What have you used from that experience to become a better leader? 

In a space mission you know if you make a wrong maneuver it can change the course of history. It’s this great responsibility that makes me be a leader for this part of my job. In that sense it makes me be a better leader. You have even more confidence to go after the next mountain when you come back successful.