Former Crystal Lake man now keeps NASA astronauts safe during spaceflight

  • Christopher Dobbins, formerly of Crystal Lake, stands at Expedition 58 flight controllers on Feb. 8, 2019.

    Christopher Dobbins, formerly of Crystal Lake, stands at Expedition 58 flight controllers on Feb. 8, 2019. Courtesy of Robert Markowitz/NASA/Johnson Space Center

  • Christopher T. Dobbins' official NASA portrait as a flight director.

    Christopher T. Dobbins' official NASA portrait as a flight director. Courtesy of Bill Stafford

 
 
Updated 8/21/2022 9:00 AM

At the age of 10, a former Crystal Lake boy watched a movie with his father that stirred in him a dream to work for NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. That vision, he said, was further illuminated by the time he spent at the Challenger Learning Center in Woodstock.

Today, 31-year-old Christopher Dobbins is seeing his dream come to fruition as he leads a NASA team tasked with protecting human spaceflight missions.

 

Dobbins, a 2009 graduate of Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, lives in Houston with his wife and two children.

"The flight director on shift in mission control is ultimately the one responsible for making the real-time decisions critical to keeping NASA astronauts safe in space," said Dobbins, who also attended St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in Crystal Lake and was a Crystal Lake Country Club caddie.

Becoming a NASA flight director requires years of study and dedication, a background of professional experience in a high-stress environment and fast-paced decision-making.

"These highly qualified individuals will be responsible for keeping astronauts safe and executing human spaceflight missions," NASA Director of Flight Operations Norm Knight said in a news release announcing Dobbins and six others being selected for the "2022 Class of Flight Directors."

Growing up in Crystal Lake, Dobbins was a successful student, a president of the National Honor Society, captain of the Illinois High School Scholastic Bowl team and active in sports. He also worked with Special Olympics and the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association.

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Dobbins was hired by NASA the year he graduated college in 2014. He had been interning at NASA for two years before graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in science and engineering in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan.

He has worked in various positions with NASA, each focused on flying astronauts safely into space and returning them to Earth unharmed, similar to the plot of the true story told in the movie "Apollo 13" that he watched with his father on his 10th birthday.

Featuring Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell, the 1995 movie tells the story of an accident that crippled the Apollo spacecraft on the way to what would have been the program's third moon landing.

"After watching, I was completely fascinated and taken by the idea of exploring space, of pushing the boundaries of where humans have been over the next horizon," he said. "What also really grabbed me wasn't just the astronauts -- though they were heroic on Apollo 13 -- it was the ground experts who worked around the clock to pull together a plan to bring those astronauts home safely after the accident. I loved the idea of being in the middle of the problem-solving action in mission control, and I started to really get into reading about the history of the space program."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

His parents, Thomas and Jeanne Dobbins, still live in Crystal Lake. Thomas Dobbins recalled that shortly after seeing "Apollo 13," every time Christopher was asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, his response was an engineer.

But when his mom asked him what an engineer was, he replied he did not know. So, Thomas Dobbins asked, "Is it because that is what you have to be to work for NASA?" To which his son quickly pointed at him and said, "Exactly."

Christopher Dobbins, left, formerly of Crystal Lake, was among the Expedition 61 flight controllers working on Oct. 6, 2019, at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Christopher Dobbins, left, formerly of Crystal Lake, was among the Expedition 61 flight controllers working on Oct. 6, 2019, at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. - Courtesy of James Blair/NASA/Johnson Space Center

Ever since, Christopher Dobbins studied hard and was a dedicated, successful student with the goal to work for NASA. And he did it, his father said.

"It is really cool when you see your children fulfill their dream," he said.

Dobbins' dream was further solidified shortly after seeing "Apollo 13." That's when his fifth-grade class visited Woodstock's Challenger Learning Center and where he "ran" a simulated space mission.

"I actually got to be a flight controller in a mission control," he said. "After that day, I knew I had to find a way to get to Houston and do the job for real."

Dobbins later worked at the center helping elementary and junior high summer camps run the simulated missions. Dobbins also built model rockets and small robots and lent "what knowledge I had about spaceflight, science and math," he said.

Denise Brock, director of the Challenger Learning Center, did not work with Dobbins but said she is aware of his time at the center and his current success.

Brock said, "mission commanders" at the center share the story of Dobbins' time there and encourage young visitors that "they can do this too in the real world."

"No matter who comes through the center, we want them thinking about their future, and (we say) here is someone who really did it," Brock said.

Brock said that children can get bogged down in school with math and science and not realize where those subjects can lead them in their futures. The staff at the center tells young visitors "If you get the basics now, this is what you can do with it" referring to working with NASA.

Currently, the center's mission is Expedition Mars, where visitors are searching for water on the Red Planet. When Dobbins was at the center, the mission was Operation Comet. That mission was closer to what the failed 1986 Challenger Shuttle mission was supposed to be before it exploded shortly after liftoff, killing everyone on board. The shuttle was supposed to rendezvous with Halley's comet.

Brock said Dobbins' success "is really exciting."

"(Dobbins' success) makes me so proud to be part of this organization," Brock said, "to know that we are (helping kids) in achieving their goals and that we are a small part of making (Dobbins') dreams happen, too."

Dobbins shared the same sentiment about his time working at the center.

"I always loved interacting with the kids," Dobbins said. "It's always so obvious how much math and science can excite them if it's presented in the context of exploration, improving lives on Earth, or building a new life-changing technology."

Dr. Glenn Pinnau, a teacher at Marian Central who worked with Dobbins on the scholastic bowl and honor society and was his teacher for U.S. history and American government said he is "not at all surprised" by Dobbins' accomplishments.

As a student, Pinnau recalled, Dobbins was "very motivated, very hardworking, he had a strong work ethic. If he committed to do something, he was going to do it well."

He interacted well with adults and then could turn around and talk to his peers. He recalled Dobbins often talking about working for NASA.

"I'm very happy to be able to have played some very small role to help him achieve his dreams and get where he is," Pinnau said. "I'm sure this is just the beginning of much bigger things in the future."

Dobbins said his attraction to space came from his love of "pushing the boundaries" and a desire to explore space with others.

"I strongly believe that humans have a natural desire to explore, to learn things," he said. "I think that physical exploration, whether it was mountains or oceans that our ancestors explored or spaceflight, ... challenges humans to learn more about the world around them and about themselves."

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