If we can put people in space, we can surely solve problems of racial discrimination, according to former astronaut Leland Melvin—but it will mean doing so together. Melvin, who's logged 565 hours in space, says he was never afraid to leave Earth. But it was a different story back in high school in Lynchburg, Va., when a cop pulled him over. "I was in a car with my girlfriend" and "he took her out of the car and told her that I was raping her because he wanted me to go to jail," Melvin said Monday during a panel at the 2020 Virtual Humans to Mars Summit, per CNN. Melvin—who'd been coached to be respectful and keep his hands on the wheel—was lucky enough not to end up in a prison system some Black men "really never get out [of]," he said. He went on to college and eventually to NASA, where he was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1998.
It was during his first trip to the International Space Station in 2008 that he had an epiphany. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the ISS, had invited Melvin to dine with the crew, "one of the most diverse teams in space," in the Russian section. "[I was] with Asian American, Russian, French, and German astronauts, and the first female commander orbiting our planet at 17,500mph every 90 minutes," he told Forbes in July. "We all knew that if we did not work together in space we would perish." That same idea needs to be applied here on Earth, Melvin said, noting he was brought to tears by George Floyd's death and the thought that it could've been him. "Four hundred years has not moved the equity needle much when people are still routinely dying because of their skin color," he told Forbes. But, as he said Monday, "we change the universe together." (Read more astronauts stories.)