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To a rocket scientist, Josh Dobbs is an inspiration

St. Thomas professor David Forliti, who has worked in rocket science, had a blast watching aerospace engineering student Josh Dobbs.

When Dr. David Forliti watched quarterback Josh Dobbs lead the Minnesota Vikings to a 31-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, it struck him differently than it would most of the population.

Like all Minnesota natives, he has been bogged down by heartbreaks over the years and sometimes has chosen to do other things on Sundays because of all the almost-was seasons and missed field goals but Dobbs’ victory gave him new life as a Vikings fan for reasons that go beyond the sudden jump in hope for the 2023 season.

Dr. Forliti, who is currently an associate professor teaching mechanical engineering at University of St. Thomas, spent just over four years (2010-2014) as a rocket scientist for the Air Force. If you haven’t heard by now, Dobbs has a degree in aerospace engineering and interned at NASA.

“I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday’s game,” Dr. Forliti said over the phone. “I felt like I was back on the bandwagon.”

Dr. Forliti went to the University of Minnesota in the early ‘90s, earned his PhD in mechanical engineering in 2001, and then worked as an assistant professor at University at Buffalo until around 2010. His job with the Air Force was to work in a research lab studying liquid rocket engines, specific the types that are used to send space craft satellites into orbit so the department of defense can do whatever it is that they do with satellites that they send into orbit.

He focused on why rockets become unstable and explained that it oftentimes has to do with sound inside the rocket affecting the combustion process. He noted that there are still many things we do not know about rockets, which is why you occasionally see on the news that one blew up.

“We don’t really understand what’s going on inside the rocket very well,” Dr. Forliti said. “It’s really hard to see inside the rocket because the conditions are so extreme. We built them the best we could and then tested them and they often failed, usually dramatically. You look at the rubble and see what happened and then build it again.”

Josh Dobbs will make his first start for the Vikings Nov. 12 against New Orleans. 

Josh Dobbs will make his first start for the Vikings Nov. 12 against New Orleans. 

In 2015 Dr. Forliti returned to his home state, just in time to see Blair Walsh shank a 27-yard kick and Teddy Bridgewater suffer a career-altering knee injury, to teach mechanical engineering at St. Thomas.

Watching Dobbs piqued his interest because he fully understands the workload that engineering students face. Dr. Forliti said that he does not see many athletes in his classes since St. Thomas switched to Division-I because it’s so difficult to manage the class schedule with high level sports.

“I’ve had students in my office at least once a year crying because it’s so intense,” Dr. Forliti said. “You have a lot of labs and you are working hard. One of the things I often hear is, ‘my roommates are taking business classes and they are watching football and playing video games and I’m doing homework.’”

No slight to business students, of course. But carrying a 4.0 grade point average, as Dobbs did at Tennessee, while playing quarterback well enough to be drafted is unfathomable to the experienced professor.

“He would have to be brilliant in order to pull that off but also so organized and efficient with his time so that he could keep all his ducks in a row like that,” Dr. Forliti said. “It’s just not something that most people can do. I see a lot of students with 4.0s but they are not doing something like playing Division-I football, much less a quarterback, which is an incredibly complicated position. It’s an amazing accomplishment. You are probably never going to hear of that again.”

When Dr. Forliti goes through the courses that engineering students need to complete it’s enough to make your head spin. Just to get to the point of finding a specialty within engineering, students must pass four calculus courses and then two physics courses and chemistry. After that it gets serious.

“If you are doing aerospace you are learning about fluid flow and fluid mechanics and aerodynamics is focusing on objects in flight and how the forces are acting on the aircraft,” Dr. Forliti said. “The courses get more and more complicated as you go.”

The course that separates the rocket scientists from the students who switch to business or sports journalism is thermodynamics.

“It’s about how energy behaves and how it can be manipulated and how you can do things with energy,” the professor explained. “For instance, how does a car engine work? You burn a fuel and you have gasses inside the engine that push against a piston and that is a form of energy transfer and that gets transferred to the wheels…almost anything has energy, you can analyze almost anything and it’s so broad that you can easily find yourself working on a problem that you have never seen before and then you have to apply the concepts to that. I love it though. It’s one of the things that directed me toward aerospace.”

Dr. Forliti teaching engineering students

Dr. Forliti teaching engineering students

You wouldn’t think there is much of a connection between football and figuring out how energy behaves but Dr. Forliti noted that the football players he has taught in the past have often performed above the curve. Part of that may be their ability to manage time but there is also a problem solving element to football.

“Engineers are primarily problem solvers…they apply science and math to solve problems…they love to tinker with things,” he said.

Dobbs found himself reaching back to his problem solving and study skills when arriving on the Vikings’ campus midway through last week and learning enough of the offense to get on the field on Sunday against the Falcons.

“We’re not out there doing engineering equations out there on the field but the study habits for sure, I had to cram for a lot of engineering tests and procrastinated a little bit in college, this is very similar to that,” Dobbs said.

While Dobbs laughed about how often his rocket science background is mentioned on broadcasts and asked about in interviews, it’s hardly just something he did in college as a hobby. Dobbs said on Wednesday that when he was playing for the Cleveland Browns he would visit NASA’s Glenn Research Center to “hang out with them” in his free time. The center tweeted out a congratulations to Dobbs after his victory over Atlanta, which included a picture of him in a space suit.

“I would go over there like Monday or Tuesday just to try to learn something and hang out with them,” Dobbs said. “So, it was cool to get some love from my people at NASA.”

In 2019, while a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dobbs spent a month at the Kennedy Space Center as part of the NFL Players Association Externship. In an interview with the NFLPA about his experience, he laid out all the different things he did while on the famed Cape Canaveral complex.

“I was seeing the futuristic moon rover, seeing different tools they’ll be taking to space like a 3D printer that’s able to combine moon dirt and literally make anything you could need to survive,” Dobbs said. “I was around a lot of the experimental groups like the trash-to-gas group where you take trash you accumulate in the space craft and convert it to gas you can use to power your space craft…The cool thing to be able to say is that I was able to see the big picture and see how all the parts of the space center work together, and to be around those great engineers down there.”

Dr. Forliti said that his students have often gotten opportunities to intern with NASA, though that isn’t the only place on earth (or space?) that aerospace engineering majors can find work. Had Dobbs been less gifted at throwing a football, he could have gone down career paths, ironically, working in the department of defense or for a private company like Space X. He could have also gone into the commercial side of things focusing on commercial or smaller airplanes. The professor mentions that there are studies being done on how to reduce the impact of sonic booms, which would allow commercial airplanes to go faster and possibly someday cut down flight times.

“The rocket industry has been pretty strong,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunities.”

Dobbs is aiming to keep his career opportunities on the field for now. Prior to joining the Vikings he had only started 10 career games since entering the league in 2017 but last Sunday’s win gave hope to the possibility of the “Passtronaut” taking his career and the Vikings’ season to the moon. The team currently sits in a playoff spot and Dobbs’ performance opened the door to the possibility that he could lead them there and beyond.

Dr. Forliti would love to see it, not just because it’s a fellow rocket nut bringing lots of attention to aerospace engineering but Dobbs is also showing young people what can be accomplished with passion and dedication.

“Hopefully it’s inspiring for other student athletes,” he said. “It’s a really cool story.