From the 50-Yard Line to Low-Earth Orbit

When Leland Melvin's football career ended, his space journey began.

Dec. 5, 2007 — -- In 1988, Leland Melvin was at training camp for the Dallas Cowboys, running to catch a pass from Danny White under the watchful eye of coach Tom Landry, when he felt his hamstring give out.

It was the end of his football career, but the start of his career as an astronaut. He launches Thursday as a mission specialist as part of a multinational crew of seven flying on Space Shuttle Atlantis in STS 122, an important mission in the assembly sequence to finish building the International Space Station.

Melvin, 43, is the son of schoolteachers Deems and Grace Melvin of Lynchburg, Va. He credits them with pushing him to do his best. He was a gifted athlete, but Melvin said his parents told him he could do more. And he was fortunate to have high school teachers who nurtured his love of chemistry.

College followed at the University of Richmond where Melvin majored in chemistry, and yes, played football. The wide receiver was drafted in 1986 by the Detroit Lions, but got sidelined by an injury. The Dallas Cowboys asked him to try out, which led to his fateful day on the field with a career-ending injury.

But Melvin had a backup plan, which he said is important for anyone who plans a career in professional sports.

"I see guys, all they want to do is play basketball. All they want to do is play football. 'I am going to be the next greatest NFL player, the next greatest NBA player,' and I say, 'Hey, that is cool. Go for it,'" Melvin told ABC News. "But I pulled a hamstring. I had an opportunity, but my hamstring gave out so I couldn't do that anymore.

"What's your fallback plan? That needs to be education. If they have that education ingrained in them, just the thought if this doesn't work out then this is my plan B. And that is what happened to me, I could not continue playing because of an injury and went back to grad school and continued on," he said.

Melvin continued on with a graduate degree in chemistry and went to work at the Langley Research Center. After nine years he applied to become an astronaut and made it into the astronaut corps on his first try.

He is now a robotics specialist, a skill that takes great eye-hand coordination, depth perception and quick reaction.

On this mission, he will be using the robotic arm to gently lift the European Columbus module -- which is about the size of a school bus -- out of the Atlantis payload bay, and move it into place on the International Space Station.

In space "robotics is very crucial," he said. "Some of the components that we are handling cannot be handled by a spacewalker alone. They just cannot just drag the Columbus module up and attach it to the space station. I think one of the most important tasks of this mission is to attach the Columbus. The Columbus is very close -- the last few feet as you are going in to dock to the space station -- you know, it's going to be, maybe a few little butterflies.

"We have practiced it over and over and it is very critical that we use this Canada Arm Two as efficiently and effectively to get the job done in the time frame because our time frames are very tight. So get that done and support the other spacewalks," he added.

Melvin said his football training has been useful as an astronaut.

"I was a wide receiver. If you think about the relationship between a wide receiver and a quarterback -- you are in this stadium with 60,000 people and everyone is screaming and the defense is changing on you so you have to use nonverbal communication," he said. "The crew on the flight deck, the four of us, the pilot, I am MS [mission specialist] one and MS two -- we sometimes have to communicate nonverbally just like a wide receiver and a quarterback to get the job done."

"You only have eight-and-a-half minutes to get to space and you are trying to keep all these, in our training, keep all these relay horrendous malfunctions from taking you out," he explained. "I think it is that communication, that esprit de corps -- that camaraderie, playing football -- it is a direct analog."

What is most important to Melvin is reaching children, helping them realize that what he did, they can do as well.

"When children can see the types of great and wonderful and huge and magnificent projects that we do, it is not about the project," he said. "It is about the humans that are actually going out there and taking those steps and taking those strides and being brave and trying to make things happen on a grand scale for mankind."

Football is still a passion for Melvin. He expects the flight controllers in Mission Control to pass on scores while he is on orbit. Who is he rooting for?

"The underdog. The underdog coming down in the last minute and winning the game."