Astronaut's Latest Adventures Have Gone to the Dogs

With his pups in tow, NASA's Leland Melvin explores land he once saw from space.

Leland Melvin poses with his dogs Jake and Scout in his 2009 NASA portrait
Leland Melvin poses with his dogs Jake and Scout in his 2009 NASA portrait.


Leland Melvin was newly drafted by the NFL when he pulled a hamstring in training camp. Luckily, he had a pretty good backup plan. He had a degree in chemistry and a master’s in material science engineering. He gave up football for a career with NASA.

Melvin spent 25 years with NASA, logging more than 565 hours in space. But he earned viral fame for what he did before his 2009 trip onboard the 31st shuttle flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

He smuggled his two large dogs into the studio so they could be part of one of his official NASA portraits more than a decade ago. The joyful photo above has made the rounds online quite a few times.

It also caught the eye of producers at Netflix who feature Melvin in season two of the series “Dogs” which premieres July 7.

They followed him as he trekked in a specially equipped dog-friendly van with his two Rhodesian ridgeback rescues, Zorro and Roux, to climb 14,000-foot Columbia Point in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The point has a plaque at its peak honoring the seven astronauts who died in 2003 when Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry.

Melvin attempted the trip once before to honor his friends but didn't make it. He talked to Treehugger about how his dogs have comforted and inspired him and how it was traveling parts of the country he had only seen before from space.

Leland Melvin with one of his dogs


Treehugger: What role did dogs play in your life when you were growing up?

Leland Melvin: I had two family dogs. One was a collie named King and the other was a poodle named Jocque. I remember when I was 5 years old, two boys came into our yard and teased my dog King and he snapped at one of them. Later that day Animal Control came and took our dog away when the boys’ mother reported a vicious dog in the neighborhood. I think that experience made me be hyper-attentive to my dogs’ interactions with people as an adult.

Jake was your first rescue dog as an adult. How did he come into your life and what important role did he play to help you heal during hard times?

When the Space Shuttle Columbia crew did not return home from Space in 2003, to help me heal from their loss I took a road trip with Jake to work out a process for grieving. He was there through every tear and mile along the way.

When you went in for your official NASA portrait, what prompted you to bring Jake and your second rescue dog, Scout? Were you surprised at how well received your portrait was?

They said I could take my family but they did not say two-legged or four-legged, but dogs are not allowed on the base. We figured it out and that picture of us holding paws and hands all excited about the possibility of going to space went viral because of the connection that the three of us had in the image: human and pups excited about the future of exploration.

When astronauts go on missions, they often say they miss their pets so much. How hard was it to be gone from Jake? Did you really call from the Space Shuttle Atlantis to talk to him?

I was Jake’s only human and for me to leave him alone for that long off the planet was tough. I did call the Sea-Dog Inn in Kemah, Texas, to try and connect with him at least to let him hear my voice, letting him know I would be home soon.

Leland Melvin hiking in Colorado with Zorro and Roux
Melvin hiking to Columbia Point with Zorro and Roux.


What prompted you to try to reach Columbia Point again with your current dogs, Zorro and Roux?

I did not reach the summit the first time with Jake because of weather and wanted to touch the plaque to honor them and get a sense of closure.

What was it like traveling so many miles with them in your customized van? Were you able to see some of the sights from the ground that you had seen only from space?  

As we racked up the miles along the highways of America, I  remember looking down on the Rockies, Crater Lake, my hometown, the Mississippi River, and the West Coast in 2008 and 2009 from space, contrasting the vastly different views.

The trek up the 14,000-foot mountain with two huge dogs and gear seemed very arduous. Were you worried? Did the dogs help you through the hard parts?

We had trained walking together on leash with a backpack going up a few mountains and I felt we were in shape and ready.  Worried some about the loose rock with sharp edges so we got the pups some booties. The dogs did pull me up the trail a few times and I was thankful.

Leland Melvin with Roux and Zorro
Leland Melvin with Roux and Zorro.


Unfortunately, you didn’t quite make it to the top. But how beneficial was the journey for you and for your relationship with your dogs?

I do believe that life is about the journey and not the destination. That was one of [Shuttle Columbia astronaut] Laurel Clarke’s favorite quotes. I wanted to honor my friends but I felt we did in a spiritual way just by trying and being present in their mountain space. I also learned how to travel over long distances with these two furry companions. 

What adventure do you have planned next? Do the dogs now travel with you to your speaking engagements and other trips?

I’m ready to hit the road in the fall with the pups as the weather will be cooler and I don’t have to worry about leaving them in a hot vehicle or worry that the air condition system may not keep up with the high temperatures. I have some speaking engagements coming up and look forward to getting out to the Pacific Northwest, an area I have not explored much. 

But it does not matter where you travel, the dogs don’t care as long as the window is open and they can catch the scent of adventure.