(CNN)A police stop could have cost former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin his career in space before he ever got started.
Melvin, who was never afraid launching into space on two Space Shuttle Atlantis missions to help build the International Space Station, never knew what was going to happen when the cops pulled him over.
"I've been on this rocket with millions of pounds of thrust and not once was I afraid of going to space," said Melvin, who is Black. "It's when I've been stopped by police officers that I didn't even know ... I was starting to sweat and just holding the steering wheel really hard."
"Every father in the Black community has a conversation with their son to tell them that if you get stopped by an officer, you know, you assume the position, which is 10-2 (hands on the wheel), look straight ahead," he added. "You tell the officer, you know, you're real respectful, you say you're reaching for your obvious things."
Melvin spoke Monday during a panel celebrating Black lives in the space industry during the 2020 Virtual Humans to Mars Summit hosted by Explore Mars, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the human exploration of Mars.
Panelists -- who shared their personal experiences and discussed the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of George Floyd, and subsequent protests -- included former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, NASA Deputy Manager of Commercial Lunar Payload Services Camille Alleyne and Danielle Wood, director of the Space Enabled Research Group in MIT's Media Lab.
Melvin can still remember one traffic stop when he was a student at Heritage High School in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he graduated in 1982.
"I was in a car with my girlfriend and a police officer rolled up on us," Melvin said. "He took her out of the car and told her that I was raping her because he wanted me to go to jail.
"And you know, when Black men get into the prison system, that they really never get out and have a second chance. I was going to college on scholarship and want to be a chemistry major."
Melvin urged people to make sure they're not part of the problem by contributing to racism, asking people to assess both what they're doing to hurt and how they can help fight racism.
The path to space
Luckily that stop didn't derail his career. Melvin ended up logging more than 565 hours in space, but space was not his first choice.
During the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, Melvin said he was the "antenna engineer," holding the antennas for his parents while they watched it.
"And the next day all the kids in the neighborhood said, 'Do you want to be an astronaut?' No, I don't see someone who looks like me," Melvin recalled.
Five blocks down the street from where Melvin grew up, Arthur Ashe learned how to play tennis. Ashe, the only Black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, turned pro in 1969. Ashe was also the first Black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team.
"My dad talked about his perseverance his athleticism, his intelligence," Melvin said. "'I want you to be like him.' It wasn't until I got to NASA, when a friend said, 'You'd be a great astronaut.'"
Melvin didn't fill out an application until his friend, Charlie Camarda, got into the astronaut program. "If that guy can get in, I can get in, and that's when I applied."
Melvin was drafted in 1986 to play in the National Football League for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys but pulled his hamstrings and didn't end up playing any regular season games.
In 1989, he began working at NASA Langley Research Center in the Fiber Optic Sensors group of the Nondestructive Evaluation Sciences Branch, according to NASA. He was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1998.