Peter Timko

Last week I spoke with Camilo Tobacia, an aerospace engineer currently working with Blue Origin. Camilo is also the founder and CEO of Space United, a sports organization that brings together the world of football and space. SU organizes football teams made up of space professionals and enthusiasts while also organizing youth outreach programs to get students interested in space and science. The following has been edited for clarity and concision.

So, to start, can you tell me a little about Space United and how it came about?

I studied aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University, and before that, I did sports quite competitively with my brothers. We’re a family of four boys and we grew up playing soccer since we were kids. We came from Colombia where soccer is such a big part of our culture and upbringing. On the other hand, my dad as a mechanical engineer, always instilled a sense of curiosity and taught us to look at the world with an engineering mindset –that how education also became an important part of our upbringing.

Fast forward, we moved to the US and finished school and got engineering careers, all of us. In 2014, I got lucky enough that my resume was pulled up for a SpaceX interview. I followed a grueling interview process and finally joined SpaceX and began working on the Dragon capsule. Even there, I still yearned to continue playing football, just like I did while I was playing in college. So. within the space community, I’ve found it easy to connect with colleagues and figure out who within my network wanted to play soccer, on the side. So, that’s how it really began: just colleagues at SpaceX playing football on the weekend.

The whole movement just started taking off from there organically. We would do tournaments in the city of LA and would get attention from educators, parents and children that were playing nearby. They would ask us about rockets and about science. In 2019, my father and brothers had an opportunity to speak to over 300 students at a Title 1 school, and that was the moment that gave our idea the momentum it needed to use sports as a way to connect with youth. Around 2019, we formalized the idea of the club as Space United Football Club. Professionals from different space companies joined the roster to play on the weekends and give back to our communities in the form of sharing access to space.

In 2019, I took a position in Seattle for Blue Origin. And then, just naturally, the expansion of the club also happened as I moved. Soon, different people in places like Cape Canaveral, Denver, and Madrid started reaching out and wanting to start their own soccer team. And so now we have six clubs, five in the US and one in Spain. We’re about 100 players that are space professionals and space enthusiasts. We play soccer and give community talks that essentially tell the story of how sports and other types of creative outlets can lead you to a career in space. So far, we’ve talked to maybe 15,000 students in the world and the community is just growing.

When you started out, was there a certain type of person at SpaceX who joined? Was it mostly engineers or were there people from other departments coming in as well?

Actually, we have very diverse backgrounds! At the beginning it was a lot of the engineers that were within my network that I knew from school and whatnot. So it began with a small group of engineers. But then as word got out in the company, we started getting players from all types of professional backgrounds including women who join the team and play in the men’s league. So we were the only team with females in the team. People just started coming from different parts of the company, technicians, engineers, some in finance, so really sort of spread out. At this point in time it’s very diverse backgrounds that make up this community of space people.

This is something I’m curious about. I know, space companies can be a little bit siloed in these different roles. Do you find that playing sports together as a way to kind of create social bonds across these departments?

Oh, absolutely. I think otherwise we wouldn’t have connected. Even inside the company everybody’s doing their day-to-day job and that’s just how it works. You end up working with your engineering team or if you’re in finance, that’s where you end up working. But I think through sports there’s been opportunities for us to bridge those gaps and connect outside work. Then when we go back to work there’s almost like, you’re on the team. Everybody kind of nods to each other in understanding like, “Oh, that’s my teammate!” Even though they work in a much different area.

Yeah, I can imagine that’s kind of nice.

I’ll add to that. Now that we have teams in Cape Canaveral and in Denver it’s easier to connect with co-workers in those places. So now I speak to people at Blue Origin, Cape Canaveral just through soccer.

Here’s a good example: Maybe eight months ago now, I was planning a trip to Europe over the summer and connected with guys I had met through soccer. When I went there, I stayed in their house. So it brought us together, just because we connected through sports and space, they welcomed me in their home. It definitely allowed us to connect and create a community out of nothing.

Space United spread outside of SpaceX and now includes people from other companies. How did that happen? What’s it like working on a team where it’s people from these different companies that are sometimes in competition with each other? When you’re on the soccer pitch, your teammates. What are those relationships like?

Initially, we were all SpaceX employees. One year we partnered up with a local club that was doing something called the association league. They were bringing other companies together to play a tournament, essentially. There were teams from like Red Bull, Guess, Beats by Dre, all these influential companies in LA. Stemming from that tournament, the word got out. Some guys from Relativity Space reached to join the team and then shortly after some guys from Northrop Grumman joined us. Also, a few members from SpaceX moved on to other companies; a few guys have moved on to Blue Origin or Ursa Major, for example. And now we have them, bringing people from their own companies to the Space United community.

The space sector is different from maybe any other industry. A lot of the time people cheer for the achievements happening in other companies. Like, what SpaceX is doing with Starship or Starlink. It’s actually nice to get a chance to learn about those companies when people share some of the things they’re doing. I just hear excitement, you know, from people in our companies like, “Wow, that’s really cool! You guys are doing awesome stuff!”

Everybody’s working on innovating in different areas within the space sector. It doesn’t feel like competition really. It’s like everybody’s pulling to innovate and get us further into space exploration. So from that aspect, I think it is different from, I don’t know, the car industry or the oil industry where there seems to be more competition between brands. I think in space what’s interesting is that everybody is sort of pulling in the same direction.

That’s really cool. This leads to another question of mine. As you said, you’re from Colombia, and I looked on the site, a lot of the other team members are also from outside the US. Is this just because football is more popular outside the US or is there another component to it?

Yeah, I think that could be a component, especially when we started out. A lot of the international members that were working in the industry have naturally come together, because that’s their main sport. But I think the sport here in the US is growing quite a bit. The popularity of soccer has been increasing versus some other sports that have sort of stalled. For example, here in Seattle, the majority of guys are from the US. In LA it’s a bit more varied, more international. But maybe that’s also due to geography, and how big and international Los Angeles is in general.

It’s a good combination. The space industry does tend to be very international and then football is something that people all around the world are into. I mean, with the World Cup going on, it’s especially salient.

Yeah, and I think that even though there’s two different worlds for space in soccer, they still share some similar attributes in the sense that people are naturally drawn to them by passion. There’s passion for sport and passion for space, regardless of language or culture. You know, when the moon landings happened, the world watched, right? Like it just connected people through this innovation of trying to reach to the stars or get to the moon. Regardless of languages people were watching and they were cheering, right? Like it’s this is a huge human achievement. And it’s a similar thing with the World Cup that we’re watching right now. It’s people from tons of cultures coming together, they don’t speak the same language and they just come together through that bond of the sport, the passion for the sport. They watch, cheer, tear up; it’s a shared human thing.

You mentioned youth outreach. Can you talk a little about that aspect of Space United?

For me personally, me and my brothers came from Latin America. Back there, there’s not a lot of resources that drive you towards careers in space or science. There’s not a space agency that really dominates like NASA. So understanding that lack, we really made it part of our mission to create opportunity, to use soccer to help youth dream about a career in space

It was maybe three years ago that we all got together and started doing some talks in schools about our experiences as immigrants from Latin America and how it was that we landed jobs in space. We talked a little bit about sports and how that played a role. Little by little, we got more official and collaborated with Club for the Future, which is Blue Origin’s nonprofit. Through Club for the Future, we’ve been able to offer activities about space exploration. In particular, we have the Postcard to Space program that allows students to send a message to space and back.

We’ve tweaked it a little bit for Space United where we tell the students to imagine what the future of sports space will look like and draw it on a past postcard and then we’ll send it to space. So that has allowed us to really have something physical that we can give to students. So far, we’ve talked to maybe 15,000 students at this point all over the world, not just in the US but also in Latin America, Spain, Dubai, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, Panama, New Zealand. Football connects people around the world, it has 3.5 billion fans. This has really allowed us to connect on different levels with students. Their eyes light up when they hear about the potential of playing soccer on the moon or in space or in zero gravity. So that really makes it interesting and engaging. When we do them in person, we do have soccer balls with us. And we do a little bit of education. You know, we bring the idea that soccer can be understood through the laws of motion, for example. You know, like the movement of a ball. We show how STEM and sports work together.

Also, we really made an effort to try and serve the community of Spanish speakers because they do not get a lot of content or resources to find out about space as a career. So we do a lot of talks in Latin America in Spanish so that they can receive the message in their native language.

What’s the reception like when you talk to students in Latin and South America about this?

It’s complete awe, really. Growing up, there was really no concept of joining a space agency or having a career in space. We always thought of space as something you only see in the movies. You hear about NASA, and that’s pretty much it. So when somebody like us speaks to students in Spanish, and we tell him I was born where you were born, and I’m doing this, it really allows us to connect at a different level. They get excited and the excitement is pretty palpable. Then, when you talk about football, too, they get even more interested. They ask questions, like, when’s Messie or Ronaldo gonna play on the moon? Or something like this, which just makes it fun for them to at least think about that as possible.

We recently did a talk in the Bellevue School District, a Title One school, which is a school with low income and low resources. We did it in Spanish; the majority of the kids there are from Spanish speaking countries. We did the talk and then one month later, we were at a restaurant and the brother of one of the kids saw us and was like “You guys are in Space United, right? My brother has not stopped talking about astronauts playing football in space and studying aerospace.” So those little things are the things that just make it worth it. Because when you bring in the football aspect, they get an extra added level of engagement and interest.

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