Corps to Career: From Peace Corps service to space
Joe Acaba first heard about the Peace Corps from a recruiter while studying geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He started the application but received a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in geology. After graduating he worked as a hydro-geologist but the Peace Corps was still calling and in 1994, Acaba entered service as an environmental education awareness promoter in the Dominican Republic.
After completing two years of Peace Corps service, he returned to the U.S., where he taught high school and middle school math and science in Florida.
In 2004, Acaba was selected as a mission specialist by NASA, the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to be named as a NASA astronaut candidate, and in 2009 he made his first trip to space.
Acaba launched to the International Space Station (ISS) for a five-month mission on September 12, 2017, his third trip to the ISS. He logged a total of 138 days in space during his previous two missions. Before his departure we sat down with Acaba and asked how his Peace Corps service prepared him to become an astronaut.
What inspired you to
join the Peace Corps?
When I was in college, I heard Peace Corps recruiters come out and talk about Peace Corps, and I actually started the application process but then received a grant or scholarship to get my master’s degree, so I put Peace Corps off for a couple years. But it was always in the back of my mind. I just always thought that public service was really important – and then having the opportunity to do it overseas was cool and exciting.
What was your favorite thing about working in the Dominican Republic?
It’s got to be the people. It’s a very interesting culture. I’m Puerto Rican, so living with the Dominicans was a great time. They’re just so warm and welcoming and a lot of fun.
How did being a Volunteer prepare you for becoming an astronaut?
Living in a remote environment is not so different from being on the International Space Station—the international relations component of it; dealing with different cultures. We train in Russia [to prepare for missions to the ISS], which is a completely different culture for us. All of those little things we do in the Peace Corps were really applicable to what I’m doing today as an astronaut.
Your background is as an educator. Can you talk about the importance of STEM education?
I was a math and science teacher, and in the Peace Corps I did environmental education. When we look at what we’re going to do here on Earth, and as we explore more [in space], having that STEM background is super important. And it’s fun! When you think about science, technology and all that, you’re exploring every day and I think that’s pretty exciting.
Why is the Peace Corps important?
When you look at the Earth from the International Space Station, it’s one Earth. You can’t just look at your one country and want to serve there. I think the Peace Corps does what no other organization does: look at the world as a whole and go out and serve where we are best needed.
This interview has been edited for length.