Leland Melvin’s career has largely been defined by his ability to use his hands: first to catch a football and then hold onto it as he ran down the field.

Now, his professional success depends on his ability to maneuver a joystick and other controls as he wields a robotic arm on a spaceship.

Melvin is NASA’s only astronaut who is a former professional athlete, having been drafted by the Detroit Lions football team in 1986. He will make his first trip into orbit on space shuttle Atlantis, which NASA hopes to launch Dec. 6.

Melvin talked to USA TODAY last week about the thrill of being an astronaut and his injury-shortened days as a wide receiver.

“If I’d made the final 45 end roster … played in some post-season games, gotten a ring — that would be nice,” he says. But “flying in space … it’s one of the most amazing things I can think of.”

Melvin, 43, doesn’t fit neatly into the stereotypes of a jock or an astronaut out of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. At the University of Richmond, he set career records for receptions — at least one pass per game — and receiving yards. He also earned a degree in chemistry, even though his lab sessions required him to miss chunks of football practice.

Drafted in the 11th round by the Lions after graduation, Melvin tore his hamstring during pre-season practice. He was invited to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys but tore his hamstring again. His career with the NFL was over.

Thanks to his academic talents, he had other options. As he pursued pro football, Melvin kept himself afloat in part by working in a lab at NASA’s Langley Research Center. After his football dreams died, he earned a master’s degree in materials-science engineering and did research on fiber optics at Langley.

Growing up in Lynchburg, Va., the son of two school teachers, Melvin had no strong yearning to become an astronaut. That remained true after he joined NASA in 1989, until a former colleague won a spot in the astronaut corps and gave him an insider’s view of the job.

Melvin realized “the math and science (aspect) was there, the physical side was there,” he says. “So I think it was a good marriage for where I was in my life. … It’s been great. It’s been one of the best jobs I’ve ever done.”

At a muscular 6 feet tall and 205 pounds, Melvin looks the part of a man who made his living off his speed and strength. These days, Melvin’s practices focus on the International Space Station’s robotic arm, which he will operate during Atlantis’ visit to the station.

Not every astronaut passes NASA’s tests to be an arm “driver.” The job takes immense concentration and a knack for visualizing moving objects. A careless move could slam the arm into the space station, potentially opening a hole that would allow the station’s oxygen to escape.

During his flight, Melvin will command the arm to lift a new scientific laboratory out of the shuttle’s cargo hold and install it on the station. He’ll also use the arm to move colleagues who are making spacewalks, a job so tricky that “the hairs on your neck should raise up” during the task, as he described it in an interview in 2005.

During launch, Melvin will help the shuttle’s commander and pilot, a job that reminds him of the cooperation on the gridiron.

Both athletes and astronauts know what it’s like to “just (be) together in the zone. You’ve practiced so many times,” Melvin says. A football team and a shuttle crew can both become “one unit that’s just clicking. You know when it’s clicking. You can just tell.”

His colleagues at NASA say Melvin — who is unmarried, enjoys writing music and likes to walk his pair of Rhodesian Ridgebacks — keeps his former life close to his vest.

NASA’s Sally Davis, one of the flight directors who will oversee Melvin’s shuttle flight, says she knew him for a long time before finding out about his past. Atlantis’ commander, astronaut Stephen Frick, says his crew doesn’t think of Melvin as a former pro athlete but as an easygoing guy who helps keep his co-workers in a good mood.

“Other than physique, he doesn’t fit the jock stereotype at all,” says Mike Sarafin, another Atlantis flight director. “He’s very thoughtful, thought-provoking. He’s a very soulful person.”

Melvin waves off a question about whether being an astronaut is as lucrative as playing in the NFL.

“The benefit is the things that you’re allowed to do,” he says. He feels lucky, he says, to be “one of the few people in this world (to) leave the planet and work in the cosmos.”