Q&A With NASA Astronaut And Esperanza High School Alum Joseph Acaba

He returned to Earth after a six-month mission in February.

Photo illustration by Beth Hoeckel

Geologist, Marine, educator, and former Anaheim resident Joseph Acaba realized his childhood dream of living among the stars. Chosen as a NASA astronaut candidate in 2004, he has logged 306 days in space and multiple spacewalks on three missions. He returned from the International Space Station in February.

How was growing up in Anaheim?
It was a wonderful place to grow up, and being around the orange groves and just riding my bike around was great. I was a big Angels fan, so going to the Big A was fun. My parents still live in Anaheim, and my siblings also live in Orange County. I visit as often as I can.

When did you think about becoming an astronaut?
Ever since I was a kid, I had an interest in space. I had a class that allowed us to read a lot of science fiction, and my grandfather would show us an old film of the astronauts walking on the moon. When I was a (middle and high school) teacher (in Florida), NASA was looking for educators, so I decided to apply to the program. I didn’t expect to get it, because it is a very competitive career. But I thought, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

What was your first time in space like?
Every time in space is awesome, but the first was special. The space shuttle flight includes seven members of the crew, so we became very close. The first time unclipping the seat belt and floating around was the best experience.

What is it like living on the space station?
It’s a great place to live and work. Our bedrooms are super small—like closets—with a sleeping bag attached to the wall, and we have to crawl into that to sleep. It was like we were born to live in space, because the body adapts and everything becomes effortless. Some days I was the first one awake, so I would just float across the U.S. Laboratory.

Do you have a favorite memory from that time?
One night looking out the window where the Southern Lights were active, I remember being completely amazed at the greens and reds swirling over a large part of our planet. It was one of the most amazing and most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.

You were the first astronaut of Puerto Rican descent. What did that mean to you?
I was born in Southern California, and my parents are from Puerto Rico. The support I have received from the community means a lot, and now I can represent them well and show other minorities that if I could do it then they can do it, too. I just hope to be a role model to kids when it comes to being an astronaut or doing something they really love.

Will you go back to space soon?
I plan on staying at NASA and supporting people going up to the ISS. I’m looking forward to future missions and seeing astronauts go back to the moon. I also want to help the mission to Mars and work with education. I still think there’s a lot I can do, like working directly with students or with education policy—anything that will allow me to have an impact here in the U.S.

What do you want to see in the future of space travel?
I hope that space travel becomes more open to a larger population. It’s important for people to see the planet from a distance. As humans, we are meant to explore. I’m excited to see the places we end up going. There’s so much to do that we haven’t done before.

Do you believe in life on other planets?
The universe is a really big place. While we have not yet found anything, it will not surprise me if we will one day. I look forward to it and hope to be a part of that.

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