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The Orlando Sentinel

Marion County Teacher Earns Chance to Head into Space

by LISA EMMERICH, Staff Writer

April 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Global influence.

DUNNELLON -- As a child, science teacher Joe Acaba watched reel-to-reel footage of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon.

Now Acaba has a chance to see space close up -- although his rendezvous with the heavens is probably at least a decade away.

Acaba, 36, will be named May 6 as one of the first three candidates for the "educator astronaut" program, agency sources said Wednesday. Officially, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would not comment on the identities of the candidates.

Thousands of teachers applied for the chance to undergo astronaut training as part of a program announced less than two weeks before the space shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003. NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, who talks frequently of the need to "inspire the next generation of explorers," has vowed to continue the program, which builds on the legacy of teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died along with six crewmates when the shuttle Challenger exploded after launch in 1986.

Unlike McAuliffe, Acaba, who teaches seventh and eighth grades at Dunnellon Middle School, will undergo the same training as other prospective astronauts. But with NASA aiming to retire the shuttle around the end of the decade and build a new spacecraft, it could be a decade or more before he blasts off.

Acaba, whose parents moved to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico, said he hoped he would be a role model for minority children.

"We live in pretty turbulent times, and there's still a lot of racial issues out there," he said Wednesday. "I think to have a Hispanic be part of the program is of great value."

He said he hopes to inspire children who "don't think they have ability" and also "encourage higher-level kids to be interested in math and science."

Dunnellon Principal Juan Córdova said the possibility that Acaba could go to space already had inspired students.

"Every child should be able to have dreams that go beyond what they can see," Córdova said. "His going into space will prove that any dream is possible. The kids are very, very excited."

Chris Diaz, 14, who was Acaba's student last year, said the teacher made learning fun.

"It's cool because now I can say that my science teacher gets to go up in space," Chris said.

Acaba said he thinks NASA officials were interested in him because of his background in Earth science and his diverse teaching experiences.

He grew up in Anaheim, Calif., earned a master's degree in geology and started his career in the Peace Corps, teaching environmental education to elementary students in the Dominican Republic. Acaba moved to Dunnellon, a tiny town in west Marion County with a population of about 1,800, four years ago to pursue his passion: education.

Córdova said Acaba's selection for the NASA program will give Dunnellon children "a connection to Houston, Cape Canaveral and outer space. It will open up the world to them."

Gwyneth K. Shaw of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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