Yes, teammates have asked Joshua Dobbs the question: Did we really go to the Moon? We really did, he’ll reply.
“Of course, everyone has their whatever, their conspiracy,” said Dobbs, adding that, to be fair, most teammates are less interested in conspiracies than the nuts and bolts of space exploration. What does it mean to be a rocket scientist?
No one in the NFL is as qualified to provide the answer: Dobbs, a quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, graduated with honors from the University of Tennessee with a degree in aerospace engineering. (Aerospace engineering being one of the very few things in life that is, in fact, actual rocket science.)
For nearly three weeks in February, during the small window of time between the Super Bowl and the widespread outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the fourth-year veteran put his degree into practice. With help from the NFL Players Association, Dobbs participated in an externship program at NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, rubbing shoulders with engineers and receiving a crash course in space travel.
“When you get down there and you see how intelligent people are and how hard they work, just what they are even talking about and are able to pull off, it’s truly amazing,” he said. “It was so specialized.”
The program, held at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, was in part the brainchild of NASA Deputy Director of Engineering Scott Colloredo, who oversees a department of more than 600 employees and contractors. Also a graduate of Tennessee, Colloredo reached out to Dobbs on LinkedIn last year to pitch the aerospace externship.
“The fact that in his spare time he had the interest and the ability to come work for NASA, we’re very impressed with him,” Colloredo said. “It was pretty unique. But let’s face it: Josh, his approach and the way he’s going about parallel activity between the NFL and becoming an aerospace technologist, that’s pretty unique.”
Colloredo placed Dobbs with Exploration Ground Systems, or EGS, which is responsible for operating the systems NASA uses in assembling, transporting and launching rockets for governmental flight programs and the commercial programs developed by Boeing and SpaceX. Within that larger program, Dobbs was assigned to the instrumentation department, where he worked on NASA’s mobile launcher.
The program behind the mobile launcher is designed to help simplify one of NASA’s most monumental tasks: moving rockets from the Vehicle Assembly Building, the world’s largest single-story building, into position to launch. The mobile launcher is NASA’s “modern-day version,” Colloredo said, of the similar platforms that served during the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs — a 380-foot, 10.5-million pound structure designed to support “the assembly, testing, checkout and servicing of the rocket,” per NASA, and transfer the rocket to the launch pad.
Once engineers heard there was a quarterback on site — especially the pocket of Tennessee graduates — Dobbs began making his way through the facility, dipping into “a mixture of things that made sense,” Colloredo said, including a stop at Swamp Works, NASA’s innovation lab.
“It felt like every part of Kennedy Space Center kind of wanted to show me what was going on,” Dobbs said. “Every single day was different, so I got a chance to learn kind of the ins and outs, everything that goes on, and how everything comes together to support the rocket on launch day.”
His interest in the intersection of aviation and space began early. As a child, Dobbs and his parents would go the airport, where he’d study the make and model of planes and which airline flew which types of aircraft. He first visited Kennedy Space Center as a 7-year-old, drawing an early appreciation for the Apollo and Saturn projects.
Dobbs excelled in STEM curriculum — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics — in school, and as he neared college age decided that studying aerospace engineering would be “a major and degree field that I enjoyed, that I was passionate about and would challenge me.”
Going to a school that had this program “was crucial to me,” he said, and not many schools offered the degree on an undergraduate level. Tennessee did, and combined with the football program’s historic success drew the three-star recruit from Alpharetta, Georgia, to the Volunteers. A multiple-year starter, Dobbs went 3-0 in bowl games and capped his career with the third-most yards of total offense in program history.
Taken in the fourth round of the 2017 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers and traded to Jacksonville last September, Dobbs spent the 2019 season in a backup role to Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew. With Foles shipped to the Chicago Bears last month, Dobbs seems guaranteed of a roster spot for this coming season, his last before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
NASA is already mapping out his return, planning new programs and asking Dobbs, as he left Kennedy Space Center, to film a brief video highlighting astronaut signups, which drew more than 18,000 applicants in 2016. (“Might be a little large to be one,” he admitted.)
“Whether you’re on a football field or down there, it’s a team,” Dobbs said. “At the end of the day for us, we’re trying to win football games, trying to win a Super Bowl. For them, at the end of the day they’re trying to send a rocket to the moon. So everyone has their big goal.”