Leland Melvin is an American engineer, NASA astronaut, and Promoter of STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math). He flew two missions on the Space Shuttle Atlantis as a mission specialist on STS-122 in 2008, and as mission specialist 1 on STS-129 in 2009. He received numerous NASA awards and honors during his quarter-century of service.
What drew you to collect Michael Kagan’s work?
There are two things that inspire me about Michael’s paintings. First of all, the amount of paint and the power implicit in his images really convey the energy of his subject matter. I know the business end of this stuff–I’ve felt the 7.5 million pounds of thrust it takes to get you off the planet. I also love the visual contrast of a dark sky background with vibrant colors like white, yellow and orange in say, a painting of a rocket launch. His paintings have such a freshness to them. It’s like they are still wet in places–like they are about to take off.
You just recently purchased a rocket painting from Michael, right? What’s it like to experience a space shuttle blast off?
Yes, it’s a large painting that I hung in between two large windows. He really captures the energy being liberated in the blast during a launch, which I know from first-hand experience. I’ve witnessed two launches inside the vehicle and seven takeoffs from the ground. Before it blasts off, you’re singing the Star -Spangled banner. When you watch it you see the flame, smoke, and fire. There’s a rumble in your stomach and in your chest.
How did you come to know Michael’s work?
I had seen his collaborations with Pharrell Williams’ clothing line, BBC Ice Cream. I introduced myself over Instagram, and when I visited Brooklyn I set up a studio visit with him. The rest is history.
Can you tell us what it’s like to wear a spacesuit?
Well the spacesuit Michael is painting is from the Apollo program–Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. Those had to protect astronauts while they were walking on the moon. I wore the orange suit that astronauts wear inside the shuttle during launch and landing. It protects you in case you have a bad day and you lose cabin pressure. It’s like your own pressurized cockpit of a suit. There is spare oxygen inside, flares on the shoulder, and water running through the suit to keep you cool. You have to practice pulling the spare oxygen in case you have to eject out of the shuttle.
What’s it’s like preparing for the possibility of ejection from the shuttle?
Well, if we abort and have to bail out because of an engine failure or something of that nature, the emergency procedure is for the commander to put the shuttle on autopilot, blow the side hatch and extend the pole. Each person would connect themselves to the pole, but you have to clear the wing. Then you parachute down to earth.
Can you describe what it’s like to experience the earth from above? How does it feel to come back?
It’s a blue you can’t describe. You see a sunrise and sunset every 45 minutes. Your 240 miles above the earth and orbiting at 17,500 miles per hour, so you can pass from Florida to Maine in two minutes. When you re-enter the atmosphere the plasma creates purple flames coming over the top of the spacecraft. You’re looking out of the shuttle like, oh my goodness this is changing my life! Everyone should experience it.
When you come home, you’ve been living without gravity for twelve or fourteen days, and in some cases six months to a year. Your heart doesn’t pump as fast–it’s easy street in space. When you get back to earth you feel really heavy, and your brain rejects all the visual cues and input from your inner ear. You have to be careful not to fall over until your body recalibrates everything.
We heard you just recently retired. What are you doing now?
Yes, after 24 years of NASA service I’ve retired from my recent position as head of NASA’s education program, STEM. It was my job to deliver science, technology, engineering and mathematics content more effectively to educators and students. I added an “A” for the arts, so it’s really STEAM. I live a STEAM lifestyle. Growing up, kids are taught that you can go one of two ways in the world–you can either be creative, or you can be a scientist. I always ask why can’t you do both? Your brain is actually pre-wired to do both things. We can change our planet through art, music, dance, and math…and advance civilization by learning about our bodies in space. That’s the type of mentality I’m trying to help everyone embrace.