Space-Bound Astronaut is a UA Alum
Joseph M. Acaba graduated from the UA in 1992 and is now set to be one of the crew members scheduled to depart Earth next month for the International Space Center.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Jan. 12, 2009

When the next shuttle bound for the International Space Station launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida next month, a University of Arizona alum will be on board.

Astronaut Joseph M. Acaba, a 1992 graduate of the UA, will make his first journey into orbit as one of seven crew members aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

Acaba is a mission specialist who was selected by NASA in 2004 as part of the Educator Astronaut Program. He and his team are scheduled to launch on Feb. 12 at 7:28 a.m. EST.

Acaba's path toward becoming an astronaut was not a linear one.

California-born Acaba graduated from Esperanza High School in Anaheim in 1985. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in geology from the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1990 before pursuing graduate work, also in geology, at the UA.

Speaking with reporters during a teleconference on Friday, Acaba spoke about his experience as an educator, as an astronaut and about his time at the UA.

Acaba said he was initially skeptical about moving from southern California to the desert, but opted to move to Tucson to attend the UA after receiving a scholarship.

"For me, it was a great experience," he said, noting that UA professor emeritus Joseph Schreiber was an instrumental force during his time at the UA.

"When I got there, it turned out to be a great place to be as a geologist," he said.

"I enjoyed being a geologist and being outdoorsm," Acaba added. "The UA has a phenomenal department and it solidified what I had learned as an undergraduate."

But it wasn't just academics that captured his attention.

Acaba said that while Santa Barbara had some serious sports fans, "the Wildcat fans are definitely a couple of notches above. It was quite an experience, especially going to the basketball and football games."

After leaving the UA, he did not stay in geology. "I didn't want to leave Tucson but, for employment purposes, I had to."

Eventually, Acaba began teaching math and science, working at a high school and a middle school in Florida.

"Life leads you in different directions," he said.

In addition to teaching, Acaba's professional experience includes service in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, working as a hydrogeologist in Los Angeles on Superfund-site groundwater contamination assessment and remediation, two years of U.S. Peace Corps service in the Dominican Republic, managing a marine research center on an island in the Bahamas, and coordinating a mangrove revegetation project in Florida.

But he never let go of his childhood interest in becoming an astronaut.

Acaba, reflecting on memories of his father and grandfather's love for science, said his family would watch reel tapes of the Apollo, which had its mission runs from 1963 to 1972.

"For me at that young age, it was almost like watching it in real time," he said. "It opened up the imagination of what could be possible."

As an adult, Acaba realized he still held on to that undeniable desire to become an astronaut.

"They were looking for educators to become astronauts," Acaba said.

Acaba completed Astronaut Candidate Training in February 2006. Training 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.

"When I was teaching, I felt it was the profession that I was really meant to do, and I really still enjoy it," he said. "I wouldn't have left it for anything, besides becoming an astronaut."

Upon completion of training, he was assigned to the Hardware Integration Team in the Space Station Branch helping to address technical issues with European Space Agency hardware.

In February, the Acaba and his fellow astronauts will fly on the 14-day space shuttle mission designated STS-119. Acaba will conduct two of the mission's four space walks.

The shuttle will deliver the space station's fourth and final set of solar array wings, completing the station's backbone, or truss. The arrays will provide the electricity to power science experiments.

The shuttle also will deliver the first resident station crew member from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and bring back U.S. astronaut Sandra Magnus, who will have lived aboard the complex for more than three months.

"It was luck of the draw," Acaba said. "I was fortunate to get that position."