Former Central Florida science teacher Joe Acabá to lead NASA’s Astronaut Office
Orlando Sentinel | By Richard Tribe | February 3, 2023
For now, the moon is off the table for NASA astronaut and former Central Florida science teacher Joe Acabá. Instead, he will be at the head of the table as chief of the Astronaut Office.
The first Hispanic to hold the prestigious post, Acabá will decide which astronauts fly where, including the first woman to land on the moon.
Acabá, 55, taught science and math at Melbourne High School in Brevard County as well as Dunnellon Middle School in Marion County before being chosen in 2004 as an astronaut candidate.
Now a veteran, he had been among the original 18 astronauts announced as potential crew for Artemis moon missions. Late last year, though, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman stepped down from the chief astronaut position to put his name back in the hat for missions.
Deputy chief NASA astronaut Drew Feustel had been holding down the fort until NASA named Acabá to the position on Thursday.
“Joe is an experienced space flyer and a proven leader, and he will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of NASA astronauts,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a news release. “As we build on the International Space Station’s unparalleled success in low-Earth orbit with our eyes on the Moon and then Mars, Joe will play an integral role in ensuring our NASA astronauts are prepared for the challenges ahead.”
Acabá wasn’t immediately available for comment Friday.
He was a member of both the Marine Corps Reserves and the Peace Corps, working in the Dominican Republic before becoming a teacher in Florida. His shift to the nation’s space agency came as part of NASA’s revived Educator Astronaut program, the same one that sought to send Christa McAuliffe into space before the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
“I did a lot of different jobs until I found the one that I thought was the most important job on the planet which was being a school teacher,” Acabá said in a previous interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “It was one of the jobs that I thought I would never leave until I was given this opportunity to become a NASA astronaut.”
He has since flown on Space Shuttle Discovery during STS-119 to the ISS in 2009, and on two ISS Expeditions in 2012 and 2018. He’s spent nearly 306 days in space making three spacewalks.
In the past four years, he has taken on duties as director of operations in Russia, and chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office.
Acabá’s parents moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland U.S. before he was born in California in 1967.
“We live in pretty turbulent times, and there’s still a lot of racial issues out there,” he told the Sentinel in 2004. “I think to have a Hispanic be part of the program is of great value.”
He graduated from Esperanza High School in Anaheim, California, earning a bachelor’s in geology from UC-Santa Barbara and master’s in geology from the University of Arizona. He also worked as a hydrogeologist in California. He has said he considers Miami home.
Acabá had been excited to be among the candidates chosen for potential lunar missions saying in the 2020 ceremony that “to actually walk on the moon, for me to have that as a possibility is just incredible.”
His new role, though, based at Johnson Space Center in Houston, will have him naming crew for missions to the International Space Station and Artemis. Acabá will also help develop astronaut flight crew operation concepts.
The first big announcement, though, will be which NASA astronauts will be part of the four-person crew of Artemis II, a mission to orbit the moon, but not land, still on NASA’s timeline to fly in 2024. That announcement is expected before summer.
The Artemis III mission, which aims to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972, won’t fly until at least 2025.
“Joe is an excellent leader who brings a wealth of experience to the Astronaut Office,” said NASA’s Director of Flight Operations Norm Knight, who made the decision. “Knowing the significance of this position and the integrity of those who have previously served, I am confident Joe will be an outstanding chief for the Astronaut Office who will successfully lead our astronauts through an exciting future.”