Puerto Rico Blackout Looked Striking from Space, Astronaut Tells Students in Q&A

Astronaut Joe Acaba says it was very difficult to see the island of Puerto Rico from space after Hurricane Maria swept through the region on Sept. 20.

In comments during a space-to-ground question-and-answer session with hundreds of Puerto Rican students today (Jan. 12), Acaba said the Caribbean island is usually easy to spot because of its lights. That changed quickly after the hurricane came through as a Category 4 storm, devastating the island's infrastructure. Acaba is the first astronaut of Puerto Rican heritage — both of his parents were born there, although he is from California. 

"The first thing I noticed was the lack of electricity," Acaba said in both Spanish and English. Continuing in English, he said, "Usually when you fly over Puerto Rico at night, you can identify the island, and it was almost impossible to see it at night." [In Photos: Hurricane Maria Seen from Space]

In Spanish, Acaba added that his thoughts are with Puerto Rico, and he understands that it was difficult after the hurricane swept through — and that life remains difficult today. "I'm thinking about you," he said in Spanish.

Another student asked Acaba if it was difficult to adjust to a limited menu in space, adding that many Puerto Ricans needed to eat a limited menu themselves after the hurricane.

"It's a pretty good menu. It repeats itself every seven to 14 days. The food is pretty good, but it does get a little monotonous," Acaba responded in English. He added that he can't wait to get home and have a "great meal."

Puerto Rico continues to recover from the storm. As of yesterday (Jan. 11) — nearly four months after Maria hit — approximately 40 percent of the island's public utility customers still do not have electricity, according to NPR and status.pr, a website that tracks how infrastructure repairs are progressing in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican support

Acaba spoke with more than 500 students in Manatí, which is 40 minutes west of San Juan, the capital. The students represent 30 school districts in 12 cities, and participated as part of the Puerto Rico Institute of Robotics' (PRIOR) network. 

The students asked many questions, ranging from daily life on the space station, to Acaba's background and work in space. When asked about how his training as an educator helps with astronaut work, Acaba said communication is key in both professions. He added in Spanish that being a teacher is one of the "most difficult and most important professions in the world."

Another student asked how Acaba felt during a spacewalk in October, compared to his past missions — specifically, whether Acaba felt more comfortable or more anxious. Acaba responded in Spanish that while he felt comfortable, he still maintained focus to avoid any problems. 

Other insights Acaba shared with students included the challenges of fixing the space toilet (one of the station's toilets just broke again, he said), and the ease of flowing between different nations' modules on the International Space Station without using a passport.

The event started a few minutes late due to an audio issue on the Puerto Rican side of the communications link, according to NASA. Acaba passed some of the time by doing a lazy somersault and jumping to an adjacent wall in the Japanese Kibo laboratory, where he held the conversation with students.

Acaba arrived at the space station on Sept. 12, about a week before Maria battered Puerto Rico. Later in September, Acaba sent a tweet expressing support and prayers for everyone affected by the storm

"From @Space_Station, thinking and praying for all families and friends in Puerto Rico," Acaba wrote on Sept. 24. Acaba's tweet was accompanied by a photo of himself with a Puerto Rican baseball shirt and holding the Puerto Rican flag; behind him were the windows of the space station's Cupola observatory.

Acaba was selected as an astronaut in 2004 This is his third space voyage. On his first trip — space shuttle mission STS-119, in 2009 — Acaba brought a Puerto Rican flag with him and asked that one of the wake-up songs be the Puerto Rican folklore song "Qué Bonita Bandera," which translates to "What a Beautiful Flag."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace