Puerto Rican astronaut reaches out to island's schoolkids

In this image from video made available by NASA, astronaut Joe Acaba, right, aboard the International Space Station, takes questions from students at the Puerto Rico Institute of Robotics in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Friday, Jan 12, 2018. One student asked how Puerto Rico looked from space after Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017. Acaba says the first thing he noticed was the lack of electricity, making the island almost impossible to see at night. (NASA via AP)

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — The first astronaut of Puerto Rican heritage reached out Friday to schoolchildren on the hurricane-bashed island.

Flying aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba fielded questions from students at the Puerto Rico Institute of Robotics in Manati. One student asked how Puerto Rico looked from space after Hurricane Maria struck in September. Acaba said the first thing he noticed was the lack of lights, making the island almost impossible to see at night.

A boy noted that after the hurricane, it was difficult for some Puerto Ricans to eat given the limited variety of available food. Does Acaba find the limited space menu tough to swallow?

The menu, while pretty good, repeats every week or two and does get monotonous, Acaba said. Of course, he said it doesn't compare to such Puerto Rican specialties as pasteles, stuffed meat pastries wrapped in banana leaves popular around Christmas, and rice with pigeon peas and pork.

"I'm ready to get home and have a great meal," he said.

Acaba, a former school teacher, is supposed to return to Earth at the end of February. He arrived at the space station a week before Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, already reeling from Hurricane Irma.

The astronaut's parents were from Hatillo, Puerto Rico, and moved to the U.S. He was born in Southern California and grew up there, but has lots of relatives still in the U.S. territory.

Technical difficulties with the institute's Skype connection ate up nine minutes of the 23-minute conversation. Acaba switched between English and Spanish in answering students' questions, ranging from his experience as a teacher to daily life aboard the orbiting outpost. He assured the students that the drinking water — recycled from the six-man crew's urine — actually tastes great and is as natural as it gets. As for sleeping, he said he's getting some of the best sleep of his life.

The students were brought to the institute from across Puerto Rico for the event.

Selected by NASA in 2004, Acaba remains the space agency's only astronaut of Puerto Rican heritage.

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AP reporter Danica Coto contributed to this report from Puerto Rico.

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