In 1969, I was standing behind a Sylvania black-and-white television set. Hearing about these things happening on the set in the front, I was the guy, you know, moving the rabbit ears for my dad, and my sister and my mom. "Move over here, turn over here, move this way, we can't see the screen." And what they were watching was: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Neil and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the Moon. And I was five years old in Lynchburg, Virginia, a skinny black kid in a kind of somewhat racist town. And I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. And my parents, you know, they were educators, they'd said that you can do anything. But after that moon landing, all the kids in the neighborhood were like, "You're going to be an astronaut?" I'm like, "No." I don't want a buzz cut, and I don't see someone who looks like me. Because representation does matter.
And I knew that there was a guy five blocks down the street on Pierce Street who was training to play tennis. And it was Arthur Ashe. And my dad talked about his character, his discipline, his intelligence, his athleticism. I wanted to be Arthur Ashe, I didn't want to be one of those moon guys.
And as I went on through this journey, my dad, who was a school teacher, he played in a band, he did all these things to make money for my sister and I to take piano lessons and do these different things with education. And he one day decides to drive up into the driveway with this bread truck. And I'm thinking, "OK, bread truck, me delivering bread while my dad's driving the truck." I'm like, "OK, I'm going to be a bread guy now." But he says, "This is our camper." I'm like, "Dude, come one, I can read: 'Merita Bread and Rolls' on the side of this truck. And he says, "No, we're going to build this into our camper." And over that summer, we rewired the entire electrical system. We plumbed a propane tank to a Coleman stove, we built bunk beds that flip down. We were turning this into our summer vacation launch pad, escape pod, this thing that could take us out of Lynchburg.
And before that, I was actually raped at five by some neighbors. And I didn't tell anyone, because I had friends that didn't have fathers. And I knew that my father would have killed the people that did that to his son. And I didn't want my father to be gone.
So as we got in this bread truck and escaped from Lynchburg, it was my time with my dad. And we went to the Smoky Mountains and looked at the purple mountains' majesty. And we walked along the beach in Myrtle Beach, and this thing was transformative. It showed me what it meant to be an explorer, at a very early age. And I suppressed all that negativity, all that trauma, because I was learning to be an explorer.
And a little bit later, my mother gave me an age-inappropriate, non-OSHA-certified chemistry set,
where I created the most incredible explosion in her living room.
And so I knew I could be a chemist. So as I went on this journey through a high school, and I went to college, and I got a football scholarship to play football in college. And I knew that I could be a chemist, because I'd already blown stuff up.
And when I graduated, I got drafted to the Detroit Lions. But I pulled a hamstring in training camp, and so what every former NFL player does, they go work for NASA, right? So I went to work for NASA.
And this friend of mine said, "Leland, you'd be great astronaut." I just laughed at him, I was like, "Yeah, me, an astronaut?" You know that Neil and Buzz thing from back in '69? And he handed me an application, and I looked at it, and I didn't fill it out. And that same year, another friend of mine filled out the application and he got in. And I said to myself, "If NASA's letting knuckleheads like that be astronauts,"
"maybe I can be one, too."
So the next selection, I filled out the application, and I got in. And I didn't know what it meant to be an astronaut: the training, the simulations, all these things to get you ready for this countdown: three, two, one, liftoff. And in 2007, I was in Space Shuttle "Atlantis," careening off the planet, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour. And eight and a half minutes later, the main engines cut off, and we're now floating in space. And I push off and float over to the window, and I can see the Caribbean. And I need new definitions of blue to describe the colors that I see. Azure, indigo, navy blue, medium navy blue, turquoise don't do any justice to what I see with my eyes.
And my job on this mission was to install this two-billion dollar Columbus laboratory. It was a research laboratory for materials research, for human research. And I reached into the payload bay of the space shuttle, grabbed out this big module, and I used the robotic arm and I attached it to the space station. And the European team have been waiting 10 years for this thing to get installed, so I'm sure everyone in Europe was like, "Leland! Leland! Leland!"
And so this moment happened, this was our primary mission objective, it was done. And I had this big sigh of relief. But then, Peggy Whitson, the first female commander, she invited us over to the Russian segment. And the space station's about the size of a football field, with solar panel and trusses and all of these modules. And she says, "Leland, you go get the rehydrated vegetables, we have the meat." So we float over with the bag of vegetables, all rehydrated, and we get there.
And there's this moment where I get transformed back to my mother's kitchen. You can smell the beef and barley heating up, you can smell the food, the colors, and there are people there from all around the world. It's like a Benetton commercial, you know, you have African American, Asian American, French, German, Russian, the first female commander, breaking bread at 17,500 miles per hour, going around the planet every 90 minutes, seeing a sunrise and a sunset every 45. And Peggy would say, "Hey, Leland, try some of this," and she'd float it over to my mouth, and I'd catch it and we'd go back and forth. And we're doing all of this while listening to Sade's "Smooth Operator."
I mean, this is like blowing my mind, you know.
And I float over to the window, and I look down at the planet, and I see all of humanity. And my perspective changes at that moment, because, I'm flying over Lynchburg, Virginia, my home town, and my family's probably breaking bread. And five minutes later, we're flying over Paris, where Leo Eyharts is looking down at his parents, probably having some wine and cheese, and Yuri's looking off to Moscow, and they're probably eating borscht or something else. But we're all having this moment where we see our respective families working together as one civilization, at 17,500 miles per hour.
My perspective shifted cognitively, it changed me. And when I think about being that little skinny boy, from sometimes racist Lynchburg, Virginia, I would never have had that perspective to think about myself of being an astronaut, if my father hadn't taken us on a journey in this radical craft that we built with our own two hands.
When I came home, I realized that perspective is something that we all get and we all have. It's just how far do we open up our blinders to see that shift and that change. And going back to the space station, I think of, you know, Germans and Russians fighting Americans. We have these people living and working together. White folks, black folks, Russian folks, French folks, you know. All these different people coexisting in harmony as one race. And I think about the colors that I saw, the design of the modules, the way that things fit together, the way that it made us a community, our home.
And so when I look up to space now, and I have this newfound perspective on the space station going overhead and looking there, and then looking back at my community and seeing the people that I'm living and working with, and coexisting with, I think it's something that we all can do now, especially in these times, to make sure that we have the right perspective.
If you don't mind, could I just chat with you for a minute, because they're going to set up some things here. And I get to have you all to myself, OK.
You guys don't get to hear this. So I have to tell you that in my family, we watch a lot of space movies about astronauts and stuff like that. I can't tell you why, but we do.
The thing that I wanted to ask you, though, is that we were seeing this movie the other day, and it was about one of the astronauts, one of your colleagues, and before he went up into space, they actually wrote an obituary, NASA wrote an obituary for him. And I was like, is that normal? And is that part of the job? Do you think about that peril that you're putting yourself in as you go into space?
Yeah. So, I don't remember anyone writing my obituary, maybe that was an Apollo-day thing. But I do know that in the 135 shuttle flights that we've had, the shuttle that I flew on, we had two accidents that killed everyone on that mission. And we all know the perils and the risks that go along with this, but we're doing something that's much bigger than ourselves, and helping advance civilization, so the risk is worth the reward. And we all feel that way when we get into that vehicle and strap into those million pounds of rocket fuel and go up to space.
Yeah, I've only seen the Hollywood version—it looks pretty terrifying, I have to tell you.
You should go.
Yeah, my husband's told me that a few times.
One-way trip or two-way?
That's a bit of a debate in our house.
I wanted to, if I may... You did touch on something that was very powerful and difficult, which is, you spoke about this incident that had happened to you when you were five years old, and that you were raped. And I just think that for you to be able to say those things, you know, on the TED stage, to be able to talk about that at all, is pretty fearless. And I wanted to get a sense from you, is that something that you think is important for you to share that now, to speak about it?
It's so important, especially for men, to talk about things that have happened, because we've been trained and told by our society that we have to be so tough and so hard and we can't tell of things that are happening to us. But I've had so many men contact me and tell me that, "You came through that, you got over that, I'm going to get over my alcoholism," and these things that are going on in them, because of what happened to them. And so we must share these stories, this is part of storytelling, to heal us and to make us whole as a community.
And you know, quite honestly, you spoke about perspective shift, and that is a shift that I think we've been very slow to accept and to be able to speak about that, so we thank you for that. We thank you for being the amazing astronaut that you are, and thank you for coming to the TED stage, Leland.
Thank you so much, Chee.