Many talented educators earn recognition for achievements outside of the classroom. Such is certainly the case of science and math teacher Joseph Michael Acaba, who is also a hydro-geologist and NASA educator astronaut. This chalkboard champion is the first individual of Puerto Rican descent to become a NASA astronaut.
Joe was born on May 17, 1967, in Inglewood, California, where his parents, Ralph and Elsie Acaba, had moved from Hatillo, Puerto Rico, during the 1960s. When he was an elementary student, Joe excelled in both science and math. He enjoyed reading, particularly science fiction stories. He also appreciated educational movies, and credits his interest in space to a film he watched in his boyhood depicting Neil Armstrong’s 1969 landing on the moon. During his senior year in high school, he became interested in scuba diving, and later he became a certified scuba diver through a job-training program at his school. This experience inspired him to further his academic education in the field of geology. In 1985, Joe graduated with honors from Esperanza High School in Anaheim, California.
Joe earned his bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1990, and his master’s degree in geology from the University of Arizona in 1992. Following his graduation, Joe enlisted as a reservist in the US Marine Corps, where he served his country for six years. During this time, Joe worked as a hydro-geologist in Los Angeles, where he was involved in the assessment and remediation of groundwater contaminants. He has also worked for the Caribbean Marine Research in the Bahamas and as a shoreline re-vegetation coordinator in Vero Beach, Florida.
Additionally, Joe spent two years in the Peace Corps, where he trained over 300 teachers in modern teaching methodologies in the Dominican Republic. “Once I did that, I knew that education was what I wanted to do,” Joe said. To fulfill this dream, after leaving the Peace Corps Joe taught one year of high school science and math at Melbourne High School in Melbourne, Florida, and four years of science and math at Dunnellon Middle School in Dunnellon, Florida. Then, in May 2004, the veteran educator was one of three classroom teachers selected by NASA to be a mission specialist. “The only job that could take me away from teaching is being an astronaut,” he explained. “Being an educator astronaut is the best of both worlds.”
In February 2006, Joe completed his astronaut candidate training, which included scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in shuttle and International Space Station systems, physiological training, T-38 flight training, and water and wilderness survival training. Upon completion of his training, Joe was assigned to the Hardware Integration Team in the Space Station Branch, working technical issues with European Space Agency hardware. He was also a member of the Space Shuttle Branch, supporting shuttle launch and landing preparations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Joe’s first space mission was aboard STS-119, which flew from March 15 to March 28, 2009. The task for this mission was to deliver the final set of solar arrays to the International Space Station. Joe performed two space walks during this mission. His second space mission was Expedition 31/32, which was launched on May 15, 2012, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and returned on September 17, 2012. As a member of the Expedition 31/32 crews, Joe spent 123 days aboard the International Space Station as a flight engineer. The intrepid educator has logged a total of 138 days in space during his two missions.
Joe once said that, as an educator astronaut, he hoped to reach out to minority students. On March 18, 2008, he traveled to Puerto Rico, where he was honored by the island’s senate. During his visit, Joe met with school children at the capitol and at Science Park located in Bayamon. Science Park boasts a planetarium and several surplus NASA rockets among its exhibits. Joe made a second trip to Puerto Rico on June 1, 2009. On that trip he spent seven days on the island and came into contact with over 10,000 citizens, most of them school children.
Joe is active in several professional organizations. He is a member of the International Technology Education Association, the Florida Association of Science Teachers, and the Association of Space Explorers. During his career, Joe has earned many honors. He has been given the Ana G. Mendez University System Presidential Medal and a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico. In addition, Caras Magazine designated Joe as one of the most influential and exciting Puerto Ricans of 2012.
“As an educator,” this chalkboard champion once expounded, “I think the most important thing for me is to fulfill the goal of inspiring the next generation. Motivating kids to learn is as important as the subject matter.”