Vikings QB Joshua Dobbs makes it cool to be a NASA ‘nerd’

  • Xuan Thai, ESPN Senior WriterNov 27, 2023, 07:00 AM ET


      Xuan Thai is a senior writer and producer in ESPN’s investigative and enterprise unit. She was previously deputy bureau chief of the south region for NBC News.

For Minnesota Vikings fans, the emergence of 28-year-old journeyman quarterback Joshua Dobbs these past few weeks has been exciting to watch, not to mention fodder for a fresh round of memes, the appearance of space-suit-themed outfits in the stands and the craze over the coolest new nickname in football: “The Passtronaut.”

But for NASA, Dobbs’ meteoric rise has created a different kind of buzz. And while “The Joshua Dobbs Effect” might not be an actual scientific finding, there is some evidence that Dobbs, a quarterback and aerospace engineer who is now 2-1 with the Vikings heading into Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears, has generated a wave of new excitement — in science.

When NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio posted about Dobbs on X in early November, user engagement soared. The post received more than 3 million views, and the account’s followers increased by 216% compared to the previous week’s gain. In 2022, the center said, the average number of engagements per post was 176.

And since Nov. 5, when Dobbs stepped in for injured rookie backup Jaren Hall and guided the Vikings to a 31-28 win at Atlanta, U.S. searches for phrases such as “Is Josh Dobbs an astronaut” and “Josh Dobbs NASA” have skyrocketed, according to Google Trends.

Those in the space business have taken notice.

“Nerds are cool,” said Scott Colloredo, director of engineering at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Josh has made engineering cool. We want to ride this wave as long as we can.”

Though he isn’t an astronaut yet, Dobbs has said publicly that he wants to go to space. If he does, he wouldn’t be the first professional football player turned NASA scientist to do so. That honor goes to Leland Melvin, who graduated in 1986 from the University of Richmond with a degree in chemistry. The Detroit Lions selected him in the 11th round of the draft that year.

Melvin suffered repeated injuries and eventually was traded to and then released by the Dallas Cowboys in 1987 before ever playing in a regular season NFL game. That’s when he decided to focus on his “fallback” career as a NASA scientist, eventually becoming an astronaut.

“When I was growing up, some of the teachers said, ‘You can either be a jock, or you can either be a scientist or engineer.’ And people don’t see that you can do both,” Melvin said. “It’s just powerful and beautiful to see this right now.”

After his short pro football career, Melvin continued his studies, graduating from the University of Virginia in 1991 with a master’s degree in materials science engineering. He then began working for NASA. Less than a decade later he applied and was accepted into the 1998 astronaut class. Melvin flew two missions on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, worked on the International Space Station and has logged more than 565 hours in space — with 23 days, 13 hours and 28 minutes.

As for the comparisons between football player and astronaut, Melvin knows them well. Now retired, he has a deep understanding of the two highly competitive worlds and said the two fields have much in common.

“You train and practice so much that on the field or in space, you get into this zone where you know exactly what that person is going to do. If a coverage rolls up on you, you know you’re going to do a post corner instead of doing a 10-yard out,” Melvin said. “And in space, in the shuttle, if something fails, one system fails, you know what you’re going to in the next system.”

He pointed to the data analysis required in football, studying game film, identifying trends such as knowing how often opposing teams run certain plays in certain situations, is similar to what NASA scientist do in analyzing their data points. Beyond the academic study, Melvin said he sees other parallels.

“When you walk out on the field in the crowd, crowd aspect of it. Oh my goodness,” Melvin said. “Everyone is screaming. … But you get to this place where you have to get this tunnel vision and you get all of that stuff out of your head because you’ve got to hear the cadence, you got to hear the snap. And if they’re so loud, then you go by nonverbal cues to go off the ball.

“The same thing we do in the space shuttle when you’re launching in space. There’s so much noise, maybe there’s a comms outage and you use hand signals.”

Even diet and exercise regimes are similar. Astronaut training is notoriously difficult.

“You think about your free weights, your running, your cardio, all the nutrition, all these things that are so important for being a professional athlete. You need to do the same thing for space,” Melvin said. “You’re doing spacewalks in this suit, and it’s pressurized and it’s very tiring. It’s critical that you have the same kind of cardiovascular shape and muscular shape that you have while you’re on the football field.”

Dobbs’ sudden success with Minnesota has been one of the best stories of the NFL season so far, and those who know him are not surprised that he has learned the Vikings’ playbook so quickly and with such proficiency, given his academic background and how often he’s changed teams and had to learn new playbooks.

“Football is very complicated and maybe it’s not rocket science,” Colloredo said with a laugh. “[But] I’m impressed watching how fast they adjust and so many reads and so many audibles and so many formations. It’s actually pretty incredible to watch it.”

Dobbs graduated with honors from the University of Tennessee in 2017, with a degree in aerospace engineering. He also minored in business administration and carried a 4.0 GPA.

Dobbs himself has drawn parallels between his two paths, telling reporters he sees similarities in the mental preparation. Melvin also noted the parallels between being an elite athlete and a rocket scientist, and described an “information overload” in both fields.

It’s the cadence and rituals of preparation, Colloredo said, that serve Dobbs well in both his role as an NFL player and an aerospace engineer. He pointed out that in both jobs, the training, the contingency planning, and the systems check-downs require some of the same skill sets.

Add to that the number of stops on NFL teams Dobbs has made since the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the fourth round in 2017, and it’s a lot of learning and adjusting. Pittsburgh traded him to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019. After a second stop in Pittsburgh, he signed with the Cleveland Browns, then joined the Detroit Lions’ practice squad, then the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad. He returned to Cleveland, and during the 2023 preseason was traded to the Arizona Cardinals, where he went 1-7 before the trade to Minnesota. In between it all, he externed twice with NASA.

In his NFL career, he’s played in 19 games, completed 280 of 447 pass attempts for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 464 yards on 84 carries, with six touchdowns.

“It’s not so much the physics. I mean, to me, a lot of the physics that goes on in sports is just pure athleticism,” said Colloredo, a fellow Tennessee engineering graduate who recruited Dobbs to NASA. “The closer analogy from what he’s doing on the football team, especially an elite level in the NFL, to compare with what we do with rockets, which is also an elite level with NASA, is the training that goes into it.”

Dobbs likely would need to earn a master’s degree before applying for NASA’s highly competitive astronaut program, but he already has experienced some of the thrills of being a part of the NASA program. During his externships, Dobbs worked with the instrumentations group at Kennedy Space Center.

“I would say it’s almost like your car tells you what’s wrong with it, what’s right with it: voltages, pressures, flows, temperatures, those kinds of things that you have automatically from a car,” Colloredo said. “Probably the best way to describe it is the folks that work in instrumentation measure those things, just like your car would.”

Once word got out that Dobbs was the newest extern, Colloredo said, people “came out of the woodwork” to meet the quarterback, who was gracious with his time.

“He generally wanted to dive into engineering discussions. A lot of folks wanted to talk football, and it didn’t seem to matter to him,” Colloredo said. “He would talk either subject just as happily, and he’s very humble. Folks just really took to him.”

In Minnesota, Dobbs already has created excitement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education among young students and educators.

Farzad Sadjadi, director of STEM education at the Science Museum of Minnesota, said educational research shows the importance of role models and how young people see themselves in STEM fields or professions. He said the museum is beginning to address the interest by planning new educational programs centered on “The Passtronaut.”

The museum, which has a partnership with the Vikings, recently held a program at the stadium where Dobbs joined for a Q&A session. Sadjadi said students seemed significantly more engaged than at past events.

“I think it helps broaden the expectations that students have. There’s a lot of stereotypes around science [and] around engineering, about who is and who isn’t sort of welcome in those fields,” Sadjadi said. “I think having someone like Josh there, sort of in the public space, it allows us to draw examples. And I think when he’s able to be directly interacting with students, drawing those connections himself, it’s even more powerful.”