There were three miles between Josh Dobbs and the starting plate, enough distance to be safe. Yet, as the Rockets began their fiery ascent to the horizon, Dobbs and those around him – US senators, representatives, vice president and president, to name a few – rushed to their viewing platform.
“It was really powerful,”
Next to Dobbs was Charles Bolden. He has seen his fair share of launches over the years, but he was still in ecstasy for this – the first launch of American Earth astronauts in nine years. And yet, he couldn’t stop looking at Josh.
“Have an opportunity to stand there next to Joshua and watch him, all the excitement and everything,” says Bolden. “To see the reverence in his face, and I can’t help but think that something in him probably said I would love to do it one of these days“.
Being part of a launch someday is not an unattainable dream for Dobbs. He says his Jags teammates already think it’s a possibility.
“They come and ask a lot of questions,” he laughs. “They’re funny, like” he is literally an astronaut. ‘ That’s their thing. ”
Is it as valid as possible? What would it actually take to move from one demanding career to another? As Dobbs looked at SpaceX rocket barrels against the edge of the atmosphere, and as Charles Bolden looked at Dobbs, the future of American space travel rose before them. And maybe they also looked at Josh Dobb’s future.
Until now, there has only been one – Leland Melvin.
In NASA’s 62-year history, Melvin is the only person to have played in the NFL before becoming an astronaut. His Detroit Lions jersey hangs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a place of honor after returning from space. Melvin bounced around to three teams his rookie season before a hamstring injury ended the professional course for the University of Richmond wide receiver. He became aware of aviation technology and flew his first mission in 2008 on the space shuttle Atlantis. The ball – a former quarterback high school itself – describes Melvin as “my first hero.”
Now the two join forces and draw attention to Dobbs.
The ball has several titles: Major General of the United States Marine Corps, a four-time veteran of the space shuttle, and the 12th administrator of NASA. He graduated from the US Naval Academy and has flown 100-plus war missions. He has been in space and oversaw NASA’s transition from the Space Shuttle program to the International Space Station era. He served in the Obama administration, founded the consulting firm The Bolden Group and now serves as an American scientific envoy worldwide. But several weeks ago, when old acquaintances at the Kennedy Space Center sent him an article from a local newspaper, he read it with wonder.
The young man in the article was Dobbs and the story enchanted Bolden. He immediately reached out and wanted to talk to the guy who was simultaneously pursuing two demanding careers. A few short weeks later, they were at the Kennedy Space Center. It was Bolden who stood in admiration for the person in front of him.
“I was like a gaga fan to be honest,” says Bolden. “Meeting Josh was really a treat for me personally.”
Dobbs is entering his fourth year in the NFL, his second with the Jaguars, and he has a degree from the University of Tennessee in aerospace engineering. So yeah, he’s a rocket scientist. During an internship at the NFL Players Association this spring – before the outbreak of COVID-19 – Dobbs spent three weeks at the Kennedy Space Center, organized by former Tennessee Volunteer graduates, floating to see the inner workings of each team coming together to launch rockets from the United States.
“To be down there, take everything in it,” says Dobbs, “it really took everything home for my experience down there, understanding what NASA is doing. How they partner with these commercial companies and then being there for the first commercial launch and the first launch on American soil since 2011, it was an enthralling experience. “
The lessons are also on the field. Dobbs says his technical skills can be transferred to playing quarterback.
“When you go to the School of Engineering, from the second time you go on campus, you get a physics problem,” Dobbs says. “You will be asked to find the most effective way to solve the problem and then repeat it for the next one.
“When you are a quarterback on the football field, the defense constantly presents problems, and you have the mission to” OK, let me effectively solve this problem and move on to the next one. “So having the constant critical thinking mindset, the technical mindset, the problem-solving mindset, is exactly how it correlates. So you practice on both, whether you’re in the engineering world or on the field.”
It is his natural intelligence and dedication to stretch his mind that has helped Dobbs memorize the numerical value of Pi beyond the 1980s and become a flexible field engineer, which Bolden sees translating directly into a future with NASA.
“You are constantly pursuing the field and trying to think of something that the defense does not expect you to do,” says Bolden. “He is constantly investigating the field.
“In the space program – even though we have a really good plan – we’re always looking for input from people who can say, ‘You know, I know this is what we said we should do, but there’s really a better idea there outside. ‘”
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the amplified cultural revolutions, pockets of the population that appear to have answers can become a safe place, a bond for a driven society. Often sports provide the common ground.
But sports are still in limbo. Therefore, eyes across the country turned on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at least on one last Saturday afternoon in May, and found a common interest in rooting.
It was also a reminder for both Dobbs and Bolden that apart from all practical applications, the camera and spirit found in both sports and the space program are similar.
“The space is not very unlike football,” says Bolden. “In football you have a single mission, that is to win and defeat the other team. Despite all the differences – whether it be race, sexual persuasion or whatever, everyone has focused on the playing field and found a way to defeat the other team.
“In space you don’t try to defeat anyone but you have a mission. You try to unite and you want as much diversity in your team as you can in the space world. We are always looking for someone who has a strange idea, something we have not tried earlier that can actually give us success. “
Adds Dobbs, “It really shows what – whether as a nation or just a human race – when we combine our senses, combine our diversity, combine our different backgrounds, combine our different ways of thinking, combine our different experiences, it really shows what that cumulation of thought can do. The lack of launching something out of the earth’s atmosphere is not easy and then attaching astronauts on board it also presents another level of risk.
“It was a beautiful, quite tough weekend in the US while I was down there. So having that launch … it was the perfect example of what unity looks like. There are literally engineers, different moving parts, companies, different people all over the country who do not even interact with each other on a daily basis, but they all work towards a common goal.
“If we all meet, we can achieve everything, from solving social issues and reforms to launching a rocket to the International Space Station.”
There may come a day when Dobbs is part of the latter. He and the Jaguars have all made increased efforts to deal with the former in recent weeks. Currently, he will continue to spend his season preparing for the upcoming season.
He spent time working with starter Gardner Minshew II before a summit in COVID-19 cases led the NFLPA to ask players to no longer train together in person. As things begin to open, he hopes to take teammates to the Kennedy Space Center. It is just over two hours from TIAA Bank Field to the base. Then it’s back to football, where Dobbs will provide depth behind Minshew in Jay Gruden’s new offense. But it is nowhere near the end of his journey.
Author Paul Brandt once said, “Don’t say that the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
Sure, it’s been almost 50 years since NASA and the US put a man on the moon – Gene Cernan was the last one to hit the surface in 1972. But the market for ideas that Bolden mentioned and the excitement he saw on Dobbs’ face are sparkles that can ignite a fire. Or a rocket lighter.
“He’s already well on his way,” Bolden says.
Dobbs already has a technical degree and experience working at the Kennedy Space Center. Bolden says Dobbs would need to get a master’s degree, which he expects Dobbs to have no trouble getting.
“According to everything I’ve seen, Bolden says,” he was a really good student. And if you can be a good student while playing Division-I college football, then you are a really good student. “
Bolden knows that the life span of an NFL career is relatively short. If Dobbs is not interested in flying missions to space, Bolden says there are plenty of aerospace careers waiting for Dobbs when his playing days are over.
And if Dobbs has cold feet, Bolden can always turn to Melvin, Dobbs’s “first hero,” to convince the Jag’s quarterback.
“Leland and I decided we would apply Josh,” says Bolden, “to convince him that he should enjoy his NFL career, but keep his toes in the water to become an astronaut one of these days.”
One of these days may seem far away. But it is well within reach. Dobbs admits that it is an attractive opportunity that can continue long after football is over.
“Getting a chance to work with NASA – and it was my first time to gain experience in space, to see what NASA is doing and to see what an aviation engineer’s life is – I had been, had a couple of internships on the aviation side , to be able to get the other side of it, I think it showed me that there are many opportunities.
“It would be great to work for NASA, so I think space is definitely an opportunity.”