Pasadena, CA (June 12, 2020) — Retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin joins Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society, in a wide-ranging conversation about recent space milestones and how racial inequality afflicts space exploration in a new video published by The Planetary Society on Friday.
Their discussion, which began as personal text messages during the past two weeks of protests about police violence against Black Americans, examines the differences in experience between Nye, who is white, and Melvin, who is Black, and how that has affected their work in space exploration.
Describing the unity he experienced with his colleagues aboard the International Space Station, Melvin says, “I want that life off-planet to be a model that we adopt and bring back down here. Because we get over our differences in space...that’s the power of working on a team in a critical environment. Our Earth is a critical environment too.”
Melvin and Nye share moments of joy, geeking out over engineering, physics, and the recent commercial crew launch. Their shared passion for space provides a poignant reminder that inspiration alone is not enough to overcome systemic societal oppression.
Melvin, who has logged 565 hours in space over two Space Shuttle missions and served as the head of NASA’s Office of Education, recalls a night when his own life could have taken a completely different direction when a racist police officer attempted to derail his future on the evening of his high school graduation.
As Melvin reflects on that pivotal night, he tells Nye, “I think about how you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now because I would have been in the prison system. Once you get into that system it’s very hard to get out.”
When Nye describes his excitement watching the Moon landing as a kid in the late 1960s, Melvin reflects that at the time, “I didn’t think about becoming an astronaut because I didn’t see someone that looked like me.”
Melvin also shares the fear he’s experienced, despite being an accomplished STEAM educator, author, and beloved astronaut.
“Every Black parent has ‘the talk.’ We all call it ‘the talk,’” he says, referring to a grim rite of passage for Black children in the United States: their parents giving guidance on how to survive the dangers they face due to racism and unjust treatment from police. While reflecting on the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, Melvin says, “That could have been me.”
In response to Nye asking if this is a turning point, or just more false hope, Melvin says, “I’m an optimist...anything is possible, right? This ain’t rocket science.”
“Talent is in every single ZIP code,” Melvin says. “It just depends on the opportunity, the nurturing, and the belief that that person has in themselves that they can rise and do these incredible things.”
The Planetary Society has inspired millions of people to explore other worlds and seek other life. With the mission to empower the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration, its international membership makes the non-governmental Planetary Society the largest space interest group in the world. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Louis Friedman founded The Planetary Society in 1980. Bill Nye, a longtime member of The Planetary Society's Board, serves as CEO.