For NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin, inspiration came in the form of an old bread truck his father brought home one day.
Melvin, the keynote speaker at CBIA's 201st Annual Meeting on Nov. 3, was a young boy growing up in Virginia when his father came home with the truck and told him it was their new camper.
Melvin recalled telling his father, “That’s not a camper, it’s a bread truck. It even smells like bread.”
But over the course of a summer as he and his father converted the truck into an RV, Melvin said he became “an electrical engineer, a mechanical engineer, and even a chemical engineer when I plumbed a propane tank into a Coleman stove.”
As Melvin spoke, a handful of students from Hartford’s Academy of Engineering and Green Technology sat nearby in the main ballroom at the Hartford Marriott Downtown.
He gestured to them and said, “The hands-on experience were things that you guys do in your school every day.”
Earlier in the day, Melvin visited the academy, where students proudly displayed their work in robotics and other technologies.
Melvin was engaged and involved with the students, asking them questions about their work while explaining how the sciences they are learning assisted him in his career as an astronaut.
CBIA's Education & Workforce Partnership works closely with the academy to strengthen the talent pipeline and support the development of a skilled, knowledgeable workforce.
Investing in the Future
Melvin told 550 business leaders at the meeting that these students are the talent who will help take their companies to the next level.
“This is about business," he said.
"This is about helping Connecticut become more vibrant, but the way we do that is by investing in the future, which is our children, and getting them that mentorship and that ability to reach for the stars.
“The future is dependent on us getting these kids the skills they need to be successful.”
That's why I'm here, to let them know they could be in this blue NASA flight suit, flying off to Mars.
“Each workforce development program or project we undertake can only benefit our members in the future,” he said.
Melvin holds the unique distinction of being the only person drafted by an NFL team to fly into space.
He flew two shuttle missions to the International Space Station in 2008 and 2009, long after hamstring injuries forced him from the training camps of the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys.
During his speech Thursday evening, he thanked all the Connecticut companies that manufacture materials for the space program for helping him “get off the planet safely.”
He also thanked the companies “through their jobs and opportunities, for inspiring the next generation of explorers, who are right in front of you.”
He then he asked the academy students to stand. The crowd applauded.
Changing the Conversation
Earlier, CBIA President and CEO Joe Brennan recalled growing up amid the social unrest of the 1960s and how the country’s space program “instilled a sense of wonder and awe in you but also instilled a sense of confidence in America.”
Brennan said that confidence is lacking in Connecticut. But he added that the conversation in Connecticut is changing, and he believes CBIA and its members are helping direct that change.
“We really have started to change the debate and the dialogue in the legislature,” Brennan said.
He noted that, earlier this year, state lawmakers closed a $900 million budget gap without raising taxes or fees.
While that may be due in part to this being an election year, Brennan said he likes to think that “the discussion by CBIA and its members of the importance of economic growth, economic competitiveness, and investing in Connecticut” helped persuade legislators.
From Space, You Can’t See Borders
During his morning visit to the AEGT, Melvin was particularly impressed by a project students began three years ago to bring renewable power systems to remote villages in Nepal.
The students are working this year to bring power systems and internet access to two more Nepal villages.
Melvin told the students that from space, you can’t see any borders on Earth.
It gave him the feeling that the world truly is one place, and he said the work they are doing in Nepal reinforces that feeling.
“It’s incredible they are doing a project to give back to others,” he said.
Students from Sarah J. Rawson Elementary School were also on hand to show Melvin their work.
Rawson is the state’s first Lighthouse School, working with a team of businesses, community groups, and educators to engage the school’s students in the world of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.
CBIA’s Education and Workforce Partnership serves as the Rawson Lighthouse project manager.
"Every kid has to have someone who has their back so they can be as successful as they want to be—anything they put their mind to," Melvin said.
"That's why I'm here, to inspire, to motivate. To let them see this blue NASA flight suit and know that in a few more years they could be in this flight suit, flying off to Mars."