Bad jetpack ends spacewalk early for former Florida teacher

Joe Acaba taught at Melbourne High School

By James Dean of Florida Today , Associated Press
Headline Goes Here NASA

Astronaut Mark Vande Hei greases the Space Station's robot arm's new hand on Oct. 10, 2017.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - UPDATE: 

Spacewalking astronauts are back inside the International Space Station after a problem with an emergency jetpack.

NASA decided near the end of Friday's spacewalk that Joe Acaba's jetpack was no longer reliable and ordered him back inside. He finished his work — lubricating a robotic hand — before heading back in at the six-hour mark with commander Randy Bresnik.

One of Acaba's jetpack handles kept popping out during the spacewalk. After consulting for several minutes, controllers in Houston finally declared the emergency jetpack no-good, five hours into the spacewalk. Mission Control says Acaba's safety tethers were solid, and he was in no danger.

Just an hour earlier, Acaba successfully replaced a blurry camera on the robot hand, the main task of the day.

The jetpack is used only if a spacewalker's multiple tethers fail.

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If skies are clear shortly after kickoff at Melbourne High School’s Homecoming football game Friday night, fans might see the International Space Station streak overhead for two minutes starting at 7:08 p.m.

Perhaps they'll give a cheer for NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, a former Mel-Hi teacher who earlier in the day performed his third career spacewalk 250 miles above the planet, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

Acaba, who launched to the ISS last month to start his third spaceflight, taught freshman science at the school in 1999-2000, his only year in Brevard County and first as a full-time teacher.

Indialantic Elementary Principal Lori Braga, who taught science across the hall from Acaba that year, said he was a “down-to-Earth kind of guy” who connected with his students.

“They took notice and they listened and they found him interesting,” she said. “He had a spark and a thirst for learning, and a thirst to give that to kids, so that kids wanted to learn from him.”

Braga helped recruit the then-ponytailed Acaba from a position at the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach, where he was researching red mangroves in the Indian River Lagoon.

After he moved on for family reasons to teach middle school math and science in Dunnellon, NASA in 2004 selected Acaba as one of three “educator astronauts,” an initiative intended to build upon Challenger astronaut Christa McAuliffe’s Teacher in Space legacy.

In 2009, Acaba blasted off from Kennedy Space Center aboard the shuttle Discovery on his first trip to the ISS. He returned to the orbiting laboratory for four months in 2012, launching in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, as he did again last month.

This time around, Acaba’s teaching skills will be showcased more prominently in orbit.

On Monday, he helped launch NASA’s “Year of Education on Station,” an effort to take advantage of having Acaba and Ricky Arnold — another former math and science teacher  — as part of ISS crews for most of the next year.

The astronauts will talk with students more often and for longer sessions, and record microgravity “STEM-onstrations” teachers can incorporate into lessons.

“What a great opportunity for us to go put a renewed and perhaps a much larger emphasis on education on board the International Space Station,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s ISS program manager. “I really hope that we’ll take full advantage and have the chance to touch many, many kids and educators across the nation.”

While most astronauts start out as military test pilots, engineers or scientists, Acaba — a geologist and veteran of the Peace Corps and Marine Corps Reserves — said teaching might be the best preparation.

Teachers, he said, must prepare plans every day to reach diverse students, and adapt if they go awry.

“As soon as those kids walk in the door and they do something or ask a question, there goes your plan,” he said. “So you have to be very flexible, you have to be able to think on your feet. And up here it’s the same way, where we think we have a plan and if it doesn’t go quite right, you have to learn how to fix it, you have to work as a team.”

Acaba, now 50, put those skills to the test during a more than six-hour spacewalk starting around 8 a.m. Friday with fellow Southern California native Randy Bresnik. The pair tackled an assortment of jobs, including replacing a camera at the end of a 58-foot robotic arm that snares visiting cargo ships, among other critical tasks.

At the same time, students and staff passing through Mel-Hi’s front office might notice a framed portrait of Acaba in his blue NASA flight suit sitting on a small display table near a water fountain, the only reminder of his ties to the school.

“To Melbourne High School, thanks for the wonderful experience,” reads the note from Acaba, who returned soon after his 2009 mission to speak to students and watch another shuttle launch with them from the stadium bleachers.

Few colleagues remain from Acaba’s brief tenure in Melbourne. Braga, now in Indialantic, will follow the spacewalk as best she can online, along with the rest of her old friend’s five-month mission.

“He’s living his dream,” she said. “I’m proud that he was a teacher with me, and I’m proud that he was a Brevard County teacher.”

 

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