National Hispanic Heritage Month: Joseph Acabá, Astronaut

In 2004, Joseph Michael Acabá made history as the first person of Puerto Rican descent to be named as a NASA astronaut candidate. Acabá was born in 1967 in Inglewood, California. His parents, Ralph and Elsie Acabá, are from the municipality of Hatillo in Puerto Rico and had moved to California earlier in the decade.

Joseph Acabá thought about becoming an astronaut early on in life. “Ever since I was a kid, I had an interest in space,” he recalled in a 2018 interview with California-based Orange Coast magazine. “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.”

During his high school years, Acabá also developed a strong interest in scuba diving. He became a certified scuba diver through a job training program at his high school, and this underwater activity motivated him to learn more about geology. Acabá earned a B.S. degree in geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1990 and an M.S. degree in geology from the University of Arizona two years later. (In 2015, he earned a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Texas Tech University.)

Along with pursuing his education, Acabá served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve for six years. He spent two years in the U.S. Peace Corps, focusing on environmental education awareness activities in the Dominican Republic. Acabá’s work experience has also included such positions as a hydrogeologist in California and a shoreline revegetation coordinator in Florida.

Acabá likewise pursued teaching as a career. He taught science and math at both the middle school and high school levels. Acabá never lost his strong interest in space exploration, however, and eagerly responded to a call from NASA for educators to apply to become astronauts. Acabá was one of the 11 people out of 99 applicants to be selected as astronaut candidates in 2004. He and those other candidates completed their training as astronauts in 2006.

Acabá has since made a total of three trips into space: as a mission specialist for STS-119, a mission of Space Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2009; as a flight engineer for Expedition 31/32, which involved flights of the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TM-04M to the ISS in May 2012 and back to Earth in September of that year; and as a flight engineer for Expedition 53/54, which involved flights of the Russian spacecraft Soyuz MS-06 to the ISS in September 2017 and back to Earth in February 2018. As a result of these missions, Acabá has logged 306 days and 34 minutes altogether in space.

During the last of his three trips into space, Acabá had the opportunity to speak to a group of students in Illinois via ham radio. This long-distance communication took place while the ISS passed over central Illinois, and Acabá conveyed his enthusiasm for space travel to the students. “It’s awesome,” he said. “I can look out there every day for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t become old.”

Acabá has been the recipient of several honors for his spaceflight accomplishments. One of these honors involved having his name inscribed in the American Astronaut Wall of Fame in Winslow, Arizona. In 2013, Acabá received the Ana G. Mendez University System Presidential Medal and an honorary doctorate from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico.

In his 2018 interview with Orange Coast magazine, Acabá emphasized the ever-growing significance of space exploration. “I hope that space travel becomes more open to a larger population,” he stated. “It’s important for people to see the planet from a distance. As humans, we are meant to explore . . . There’s so much to do that we haven’t done before.”

For more information on Joseph M. Acabá, please check out and

Additional information on Puerto Ricans and people of Puerto Rican descent in the U.S. space program is available at

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