The quizzical look on offensive tackle Eric Smith's face said it all. He had just received a text from his friend and New York Giants teammate Chris Peace late last year. It was a recruitment to participate with him in an offseason program at NASA.
This took Smith completely by surprise. He knows Peace well -- they were teammates for three years at the University of Virginia and lived in the same apartment complex last year in New Jersey -- and didn't remember the second-year outside linebacker ever talking about space, rocket ships or anything of the sort.
"I was making sure he said it correctly and wasn't talking about something else," said Smith, a second-year player who joined the Giants in 2019. "I said, 'NASA? Like space?' The inner kid in me was like, 'Oh, hell yeah! Let's do it.'"
Peace and Smith went for it, participating in a three-day NASA program through the NFL Players Association in February at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"When I was a kid, I was always kind of interested in the stars," said Peace, who was claimed by the Giants last summer. "Had a telescope, planets and all that stuff. Real big fan of NASA. So why not, given the opportunity? ... It was a chance to do something different."
Different kind of training camp
This program wasn't focused on launching rockets, planets or traveling to the moon. This training camp had a slightly different twist.
The NASA Commercialization Training Camp the pair experienced -- alongside eight other current and former NFL players -- introduced them to NASA technologies and outlined the possibilities. NASA technologies are available for public licensing, and free to be used by anyone in business or entrepreneurial endeavors.
The NFLPA externship (temporary on-site training) -- the first year of this NASA program -- involved more than 30 partners and 100 players this offseason. Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Josh Dobbs, who majored in aerospace engineering, also participated in a separate program in Florida this year. Six or seven players have already turned NFLPA externships into full-time positions at places such as Fanatics and StubHub.
"When I got there to Houston in NASA, I was completely caught off guard," Peace said. "I thought we were going to go down there and learn about stars and planets. And we saw a little bit about it. But for the most part, it was kind of like a business internship. When we were down there, we learned about all their technology and worked with their technology side."
They learned NASA technology was more than astronomy and astrophysics. An example is an eye-tracking device NASA originally developed for use in space. The equipment later proved useful for laser surgeries, such as LASIK.
Or even something as common as traditional firefighter equipment. Most firefighters use a lightweight breathing system that NASA helped develop. These are the type of things available to the public, including professional athletes-turned-entrepreneurs because of NASA.
This got Smith and all those in attendance thinking about the possibilities.
"If you were there ... and looked at my face, I was in complete shock. I'm like 'there has to be a catch or something to it.' What do you mean free technology?" Smith said. "They were like, 'No, we make ideas and technology for public use. All you have to do is patent it and make it yours.' Sometimes they don't even really want credit. They're just putting out ideas to make everyday life better. I was in shock."
Smith and Peace said they can see themselves using these NASA resources in the future. They know there will be life after football, one reason Peace was amenable to the idea of programs promoted by David Tyree, the Giants' director of player development.
Each day featured different guest speakers. Among them was former NFL fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo, who is using NASA technology in his startup company, HealthReel. It's a new app that Peace said can scan body fat and provide health readings.
"We were pretty blown away," Peace said.
Hoping to return
It was such an exhilarating and fruitful experience Smith asked for an invitation again next year.
Aside from expanding their business knowledge, the group got to sit in model spaceships and control rooms. There was a field trip each day on NASA's college-like campus.
"I was like a kid in a candy store even though I didn't know I liked space like that," Smith said. "It took me [getting] a little taste of it. By the time I left, whew!
"I asked to go to space, too. I didn't sugarcoat it. Anybody can apply to be an astronaut. I think it's thousands of people that apply."
This is the effect of NASA. Although it's clearly a long shot, maybe it is in Smith's future.
In the meantime, he's trying to solidify a spot on the Giants' roster. Smith was claimed off waivers after final cuts last year from the New York Jets and appeared in two games for the Giants.
Peace is attempting to do the same as an under-the-radar candidate trying to earn playing time at a wide-open outside linebacker position.
Peace is confident things will slow down in Year 2 and believes he can blossom after learning what it takes to succeed at the NFL level. Most notably, the way he studies film and looks at the game should be more advanced after watching veterans last season (he mentioned former Giants safety Michael Thomas by name).
"This season I'm going to try to get better every single day," Peace said. "Prove as much as I can every single day."
The lessons and possibilities experienced through NASA can wait for another day.