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Teacher who dreams big to team with NASA

After bungee-jumping and mountain climbing, becoming an Educator Astronaut is a logical step for a Dunnellon teacher.

JORGE SANCHEZ
Published May 7, 2004

DUNNELLON - A Dunnellon Middle School science and math teacher with a taste for adventure became one of NASA's new Educator Astronauts on Thursday.

During a ceremony in Virginia - a telecast watched by students at the school on a large screen in the gymnasium - Joe Acaba was named a mission specialist-educator.

When Acaba, 36, was called to the stage by NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, the 1,000 students who had been seated on the gymnasium floor, along with school staffers, erupted into loud cheering. The school band struck up a peppy march tune.

Acaba and the 10 other members of the NASA astronaut class of 2004 were introduced during a Thursday morning news conference at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn also was in attendance.

Acaba was one of 1,600 educators nationwide who sought to be Educator Astronauts. According to the NASA Web site, Acaba and his fellow Educator Astronauts "will be trained to perform spacewalks, operate the space shuttle's robotic arm and lead research experiments. Educator Astronauts will also share their extraordinary experience with millions of students and teachers in a unique NASA program designed to show learning in a whole new light."

The announcement comes at a critical time for the nation's space agency. The Washington Post recently reported that Congress has refused to consider funding President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" until NASA provides more details. Meantime, "long-standing programs ranging from the grounded space shuttles to Earth science and aeronautics remain mired in uncertainty," the paper reported.

Before the announcement Thursday, the students were shown a film that detailed Acaba's life, featuring humorous baby pictures set to the music of Elton John's Rocket Man. It also showed Acaba mountain climbing, scuba diving and bungee-jumping from a hot-air balloon,

Acaba has a master of science degree in geology from the University of Arizona and served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

School principal Juan Cordova used the occasion to remind students that Acaba's dream could be theirs, too, someday.

"We teach and we preach to our students that hard work and lifelong learning will give them what is needed to reach their goals," Cordova said. "Mr. Acaba is a living embodiment of what we teach our students. He teaches as he lives his life.

"He will take every teacher, every staff member and every student with him on his trip."

During the telecast, Acaba said his earliest childhood memories included watching clips of astronauts walking on the moon.

"That's what got me interested in space," Acaba said. "I want to inspire as many kids as I can to let them know that space travel has a value."

While the early moonwalks may have inspired Acaba to be an astronaut, he has goals of his own.

"I want to be on the first flight to Mars," he said. "You need to dream big. It's worth the rewards."

- Jorge Sanchez can be reached at 860-7313. Send e-mail to sanchez@sptimes.com

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