Migrant Worker Reaches for Stars, Becomes Astronaut

José Hernández will discuss his experience in space during a virtual event Oct. 9.

astronaut José Hernández

On a cool, crisp December evening in 1972, the Hernández family watched Gene Cernan walk on the moon on live television. Their youngest child, José, held rabbit ear antennas to provide a clearer picture on the family’s black and white TV. The 10-year-old was mesmerized by the fuzzy image he saw on the screen. 

“I remember telling myself this is what I want to be. I want to be an astronaut,” he says.

José Hernández did grow up to become a NASA astronaut and he’ll share his experience Saturday during a virtual conversation that’s part of the Museum of Native American History’s 5th annual Native American Cultural Celebration.

As a child, Hernández and his migrant farming family from Mexico picked strawberries and cucumbers on California farms. He learned English at the age of 12. After high school, he earned an electrical engineering degree at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and then pursued graduate studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He later worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he co-developed the first full-field digital mammography imaging system. 

When it came time to apply to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Hernández learned just how difficult it would be to achieve his dreams. His application was rejected not once, not twice, but 11 times. The competition was tough, so Hernández worked on improving his résumé by becoming a pilot and undergoing scuba diving training.

astronaut José Hernández
Photo courtesy of NASA.

On his 12th try, Hernández was selected as part of the 19th class of astronauts in 2004. He completed Astronaut Candidate Training in 2006 and three years later, he was a mission specialist on board Space Shuttle Discovery. The view from space was worth the wait.

“It was worth it. Words don’t do it justice, at least words coming from a geeky scientist like me,” he says. 

There have been only about a dozen Hispanic astronauts in NASA’s history and Hernández accomplished a lot of firsts with his trip to space. 

“I can unequivocally tell you that I’m the first, first-generation Mexican American astronaut, the first one that comes from immigrant parents, the first one that came from working in agriculture and picking fruits and vegetables,” he says.

Other Hispanic astronauts like Danny Olivas from El Paso, Texas, and Ellen Ocho from La Mesa, Calif., are role models in their own right, Hernández says, but many are third or fourth generation Americans unlike him who immigrated to the United States as a child. 

Hernández wanted to become an astronaut for himself and it never crossed his mind he would become an instant role model until he received a lot of media attention after being selected by NASA. He decided to use his new “superpower” for good by going to communities where people looked like him to “preach the good gospel of STEM education and what it can lead to.” 

As a result, the José M. Hernández Reaching for the Stars Foundation was created in his hometown of Stockton in December 2005. The nonprofit offers educational programming like a five-week summer academy for 7-12th graders, as well as a one-day event featuring hands-on activities for 5th graders. It’s important for kids to hear about options for potential STEM careers from someone who looks like them, Hernández says.

“I want to create this empowering effect that says look, I’m not an Einstein, I’m not a genius, I’m just a hard worker,” he says. “And if you work hard and if you get an education, you too can reach for the stars. There’s nothing special about me, I’m just like you.” 

Hernández published an autobiography in 2012. Netflix is adapting his story into a movie in which José Peña will play Hernández. Filming is scheduled to begin in March 2022 with an anticipated release date of late 2022 or early 2023.

You can listen to Hernández speak alongside Chicksaw astronaut John Herrington Saturday. Herrington is the first member of a federally-recognized tribe to travel to space. The event will be livestreamed on Facebook as part of the Museum of Native American History’s 5th annual Native American Cultural Celebration, which runs Oct. 7-9.

More information is available at www.monah.us.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.