As a teenager in Bogota, Colombia, Camilo Tobacia played for the country’s capital soccer team, the Millonarios FC.
But at 16, his budding soccer career stalled: His father, an engineer, moved his family to Tyler, Texas, a small city steeped more in American football than Tobacia’s soccer.
It was OK, Tobacia reasoned. He’d still play. And the cultural shift wouldn’t so much create a black hole where soccer once was, rather it would open up time to explore his education — something his father, an engineer, had always impressed upon his four sons. A year or so later, after picking up an educational brochure on engineering, Tobacia discovered “aerospace." Like a rocket ready to launch, “something ignited in me,” Tobacia says. While his father’s engineering career had opened his eyes to mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering, building things for space was new to Tobacia. “That was the moment I was like, I want to be a part of this,” he says.
Tobacia joined SpaceX in 2014, moving to Los Angeles from Texas to take the job. He looked for a soccer team as a way to meet new people in the city, but couldn’t find one. “At that moment, I thought if I can’t find one, I better create one,” he says. And he did.
Tobacia launched SpaceX Football Club in 2014 with about 20 SpaceX employees who “had felt a great love for soccer in their growing years,” he says, “great athletes who also happened to be great engineers working for SpaceX.” Drew Hess was one of them. Also new to Los Angeles in 2014, SpaceX Soccer Club gave Hess a chance to get “plugged into the community,” he says.
The budding team would go on to win the South Bay League’s 2019 championship.
Later that same year, the soccer club expanded — both geographically, and on its roster. Tobacia took a job at Seattle-based aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin and moved to Washington. Others, like Hess and Tobacia’s brother, Sebastian, who’d joined the team in 2016 as a SpaceX engineer, stayed in Los Angeles, but moved on to other employers: Hess joined aerospace manufacturer Relativity Space as its head of mission management team, while Sebastian Tobacia accepted an engineering job with Northrop Grumman, a global aerospace and defense technology company.
It was clear SpaceX Football Club’s mission had to change.
Tobacia launched a second branch in Seattle and rebranded the team as Space United—a nod to a team that had grown to unite players from the space industry’s biggest competitors. “This team is a representation of how diverse the aerospace industry is becoming,” says Sebastian Tobacia.
Some 100 players have joined the team’s roster since its 2014 inception — and 26 teammates now play between its two locations, hailing from SpaceX, Northrup Grumman, Relativity Space, Virgin, and even Google. Until the pandemic, they came together once a week to practice in person, playing league games on the weekends. “It's really fun, while you're lacing up your boots on Sunday, to hear your teammates talk about sending astronauts to space,” Hess says.
On the field, the team moves fluidly — united together, as Hess describes it. But their connection is deeper, too: “It's comforting to know that each weekend you will be surrounded by a group of people that can sympathize with what you are going through,” Sebastian Tobacia says. “We vent, talk about new ways to tackle problems, decompress, and work together to score some goals.”
They cheer together on the field and also on launch days, like SpaceX’s recent Starlink mission. And they recognize the weight of their work, and the example they can set with Space United.
As Sebastian Tobacia explains, “We work for companies that are shaping the future of humanity. How diverse these companies become will be the gauge of how inclusive our future society will be.”
Space United’s most recent season came to halt, however, when the novel coronavirus swept the country. They haven’t played in months. But, “it’s given us time to sit back and plan,” says Tobacia, who serves as CEO of Space United. (His brother, Sebastian, works as its director of operations.) The team established its mission for the future and united behind a new team logo.
Their mission is threefold: “To empower generations by establishing a professional soccer team, launching an integrative academic and soccer youth development program, and continuing outreach efforts in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.”
While Space United explores potential partners who might be interested in helping to create a professional soccer team, it’s pushing forward with plans to launch in 2021 the Space United Youth Academy — a place where youth can learn STEM and new languages on the soccer field.
And three players recently visited a local Title I Spanish dual-language middle school, sharing their stories, and hoping to spark a curiosity in engineering through their shared love of fútbol.