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What Astronaut Leland Melvin Can’t Live Without (in Space)

Photo: NASA; retailers.

If you’re like us, you’ve probably wondered what famous people add to their carts. Not the JAR brooch and Louis XV chair, but the hand sanitizer and the electric toothbrush. On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we talked to former NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, who flew two missions on the shuttle Atlantis and currently hosts the Science Channel’s The Truth Behind the Moon Landing series. Though we specifically asked him to share what he can’t live without in space, all of the items can also be used right here on Earth.

One of the critical things that NASA has developed over time is Velcro. In space, everything floats, and without Velcro everything would float away. It’s so easy to lose something when it floats up above your head. You are used to looking from side to side for something, but never up. I was in charge of stowage on both of my missions to the International Space Station (the first, in 2008, lasted 23 days, and the second, in 2009, lasted 11). These days I use Velcro to strap things down in my garage. I use a system of pulleys to store my bikes up on the ceiling and I Velcro the tires together. I have Velcro strips to secure and strap things down on my tractor.

We trained on these cycle ergometers in space that look kind of like this one on Amazon. We also used treadmills on the space station. In space when you run on your treadmill, you have to basically put a belt on that has bungees that bungee you down to the treadmill. You don’t want to be bouncing too much. Sunita Williams, my classmate, ran the Boston Marathon on a treadmill in space.

We only ate with spoons in space. So you could act like a goalie if the food started to float away. I never used my fork or my knife. Sharing meals in space is already a surreal experience — you’re moving at 7,500 miles an hour, sitting around with people from all over the world. We’re flying over Lynchburg, Virginia, where I’m from, and I’m thinking my mom is making meatloaf. Then we fly over Paris, Leo’s parents are eating cheese and wine. Next we fly over Moscow where Yuri’s parents are eating borsht. And then here are the three of us, eating with our spoons! We needed a spork. This one from REI seems to be really durable.

Quincy Jones gave me a vinyl copy of his 1969 album Walking in Space, and I listened to it in space on an old rotary iPod, while I was looking out the window with my crewmates. Listening to music in space, you pull everything you see into the music. I saw Cairo and the pyramids while listening to Sade and dancing in space. Those are some of the best memories that I have: the nontechnical things. Dancing. Listening to music. Pharrell Williams and I wrote a song together called “Exploration,” and we all listened to that in space, too.

When you train, you’re focusing on the technical. The second time I went into space, I was in charge of installing this $ 2 billion Columbus module to the space station. When I finished, I thought that would be my “aha moment” but it wasn’t until my crewmate Peggy Whitson said, “Leland, bring the rehydrated vegetables over and we’ll have the meat and we’ll celebrate.” And while we ate, I saw the ocean — cerulean, aquamarine, every color of blue you can imagine, from the deepest blues to the lightest blues. I exhausted my vocabulary for the color blue in looking at the ocean over that meal. That was my aha moment! So many blues. It was so beautiful. Next time I would take with me something that would help me put names to the colors more accurately, like this book, recently rereleased from the Smithsonian.

When astronauts look back at the planet from space, we see how it’s all connected. I shot 5,000 photos in space. I took pictures of the moon from space. Social media is great for sharing them, but I also wish I could’ve had this GoPro at the time, so I could’ve shared the adventure in a different way, to make people really feel like they were there with me.

This is a digital-photo frame like the one we used in space. You see pictures of your family and friends. They can send pictures up to you. There’s also art. If you see a painting you like, you can swipe your hand up to see where it’s from. This helps you learn more about art. I am always learning.

If I go to space again, I want to take my dogs with me. Rescue dogs are the best. You can see mine, Jake and Scout, with me in my official NASA photo. On a long-duration trip to Mars, or for living on the moon, I think fur babies need to come with us. Also, they would love it. They would have the ability to jump further, to jump higher. As we explore the universe more, we need to bring things with us that are similar to what we use at home. This makes us feel like we’re home. People need that sense of belonging and comfort. Many people take their pets to their hotels these days, they take their pets wherever they go, so why not into space?

We had a freezer on our shuttle and so we brought Blue Bell ice cream from Texas. Yes, you can have real ice cream in space! We brought fresh fruit and vegetables too, for the station members, that is, people who were on the International Space Station for months at a time, and that was a big deal, because you can’t have perishables for very long in space. My space station colleagues were happy with the fruits and veggies at first, until they saw the ice cream and they floated over to it and ended up not sharing any with us!

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Astronaut Leland Melvin’s Favorite Things for Space