Space-minded duo beats drum for Indiana County educational outpost

| Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 12:03 a.m.

Leland Melvin reached the pinnacle of many a childhood dream — twice.

He was drafted as a wide receiver in 1986 by the Detroit Lions and later became an astronaut, flying two missions to the International Space Station.

The two are very similar, he said. Both play out against a backdrop of family, teammates and countless others.

“You have a group of people you work and train with,” he said of his days in football. “The teamwork between a quarterback and wide receiver, with all the noise, they learn to communicate nonverbally.”

The space shuttles, too, are noisy and require a lot of communication between the individual crew members and with Mission Control, Melvin said. The difference is once “you're strapped in, you're going away fast.”

Melvin, associate administrator for the Office of NASA Education, and Lance Bush, a Homer City native who worked on space station projects before becoming president and CEO of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Washington, spoke to a group of students and educators at Homer-Center Junior Senior High School Friday morning as part of a daylong blitz to drum up support for bringing a Challenger Learning Center to Indiana County.

It would be the first in the state.

The centers give students the chance to become astronauts and engineers and solve real-world problems as they share missions using space simulation and role-playing strategies. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education was formed by family members of the seven crew members who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986.

“We see Challenger as a portal to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) development,” said Indiana attorney Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro, chairwoman of an ad-hoc committee that's pushing the idea of bringing the center to Indiana County.

Melvin was injured in training camp and then tried out for the Dallas Cowboys but didn't make the cut. His Lions and Cowboys jerseys, which flew to space on one of his missions, are displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Melvin urged the students to never give up.

The boy from a small Virginia town who blew up his parents' living room after being given a chemistry set by his mother was able to fly in space.

“Whatever you want to do, you can do it,” he said.

Bush graduated in 1981 from Homer-Center on the same stage the men stood on Friday.

“For me to come back here and see the changes ... when I was growing up, I remember a neighbor with a working outhouse,” he said.

His upbringing in the area taught him hard work, ethics and to be community-minded, he said.

The national Challenger Foundation approved the local committee's initial application to create what has been dubbed the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center in Indiana County. It would serve 22 counties in the western and central sections of the state.

Indiana received $1.3 million in state redevelopment money to develop the center, and the group is seeking federal funds, as well.

“We have a number of donors ... two Pittsburgh foundations are interested,” said Cuccaro.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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