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Orange County Register

Teacher Is First Peace Corps Veteran To Be Named NASA Astronaut


May 10, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orange County Register. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON - From his days as a youngster in Anaheim, Calif., Joseph Acaba had dreamt of exploring in space. Thursday, he became part of NASA's newest class of astronauts, giving him the chance to live that dream.

Acaba's earliest notions of the space program were formed through the filmstrips his father saved of the first lunar landing, a feat that happened before he was born. But despite those early hopes, he chose a different path. Instead of the life of a fighter pilot or other more traditional route to the space program, he joined the Peace Corps, and when he came back, decided his happiness lay in teaching.

So for the past five years, the 36-year-old - a master's degree hydrogeologist - has taught science and math to seventh and eighth graders in central Florida.

He thought his dream had passed him by until a colleague at school told him NASA was looking for educator mission specialists.

Now his two worlds are coming together. He is one of three educators in this new class. And he and his fellow teachers will for the first time go through the same rigors of training as those who someday may pilot the craft that could take Acaba into space.

The 11 newest space trainees were introduced one by one at a Space Day ceremony at the Air and Space Museum's new facility in Virginia. Wearing bright royal blue jumpsuits, these nine men and two women will be the first to begin training in Houston since President George W. Bush announced in January that he wanted the space program to focus on going back to the Moon and on to Mars.

"I feel like I am an explorer," Acaba said after the ceremony as he stood in front of the Enterprise, part of the space shuttle fleet that was retired in the mid-1980s and is now on display at the new museum. "I think we're all explorers. I think I`ve just had the opportunity to do a little bit of it already. Going into space is the next natural step of exploration."

Acaba's exploits began when he left a job in the environmental industry to spend two years in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps teacher. His family thought he'd return to hydrogeology, the study of water under the ground. But once he got back he knew that's what he was meant to do.

"I said: `You're going to starve to death. What? Are you going to take a vow of poverty?'" Acaba's father, Ralph Acaba, said he told his son when he learned of his decision to teach. But the Acabas, who were at the event Thursday, said they had made a deal with their son: as long as he graduated college he could do whatever he wanted after that.

Acaba's mother Elsie said it's "scary" to think of her son going up on a rocket into space. But she said she's used to his adventurous nature, something she noticed when he was young.

And Acaba's metal shop teacher at Esperanza High School said Thursday he wasn't all that surprised that Acaba would take on such a challenge.

"He was always asking me for more things to do, exploring with me and always wanting to learn more," said Dennis Walters. "He was very, very curious."

The feeling was mutual. During a web cast with students Thursday afternoon, Acaba mentioned his metal shop teacher as someone who had inspired him earlier in life.

It was April 12 when Bob Cabana, the No. 2 man at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, interrupted Acaba's class to invite him to join NASA. Acaba said he had to ask his principal for a substitute so he could call his parents and tell them the news.

Acaba - whose parents moved to New York and then California from Puerto Rico - is one of two Hispanics in this astronaut class. And when he went to the Dominican Republic in 1994 he was one of few Latinos who chose to join the Peace Corps.

Peace Corps volunteers have gone on to become senators, congressmen, entertainers and business leaders. But Acaba will be the first to join the astronaut ranks.

At a meeting late Thursday with Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez, the two swapped Orange County stories. Both are still Angels fans and both are worried about the Lakers' fate in the playoffs.

"The whole building is buzzing," said Vasquez, who can't wait to get Acaba's story onto the Peace Corps web site as another returned volunteer success story.

"I'm not sure what the rules about patches are," Vasquez said, as he gave Acaba a red, white and blue Peace Corps patch and pin. But he made it clear how cool it would be if he could wear it in space.

Acaba said he'd see what he could do.

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