Chasing Space by Leland Melvin. (Memoir, 2017).
Leland Melvin has led an interesting and high-achieving life. How many people have played pro football (no matter how briefly), become a top-flight engineer, then joined NASA, eventually becoming an astronaut (with two space flights to his credit) and later moving on to a career as a tireless education advocate (which included stints on two national television shows encouraging kids to get involved in science and technology)?
And how many can say in the process they have battled nagging injuries (which helped abort his NFL career) and then had to overcome a far more serious (if somewhat mysterious) training accident that curtailed (and very nearly ended) his stint as an astronaut?
Add in the racial bias he encountered on occasion (though he refused to allow it to define him and here he underplays it), as well as the everyday pains and life disappointments that everyone is wont to encounter–and one finds a full life that should make for riveting reading.
So why do I (very reluctantly) find this no more than a ‘good’ nonfiction book?
It seems to me that the same steady nature that made Mr. Melvin a fine astronaut candidate in some ways limits the potential drama of his story. He comments that he’s always been a fairly stable sort–not subject to crashing lows or manic highs. That’s fine, of course. And I’m not in any way suggesting that he lacks emotion–or that one has to be a ‘wild and crazy guy’ to make interesting reading. In fact, this is an interesting and informative book.
But somehow for me, his matter-of-fact writing style seems just a bit bloodless. Melvin never quite comes fully, vibrantly alive for me as a reader. One problem, I think, is a certain ‘passion-gap.’ As he freely admits, he never had the all-consuming fixation some others manifest in (for instance) being a pro athlete. Nor did he grow up with a great daydream of traveling in space. Once a new and unusual opportunity presented itself, he certainly showed admirable dedication to whatever new challenges he faced. Many others would not have done so.
And yet, I’m left with the sneaking suspicion that this book could’ve had more natural drama, had Mr. Melvin been blessed/cursed with a tad more of an obsessive nature.
None of this is meant to say I found the book unsatisfactory or disappointing. It’s a good, rewarding self-portrait of a man I came to admire as I read his life’s story. It’s just not one of the (admittedly few) GREAT memoirs I’ve had the pleasure of reading.