How the son of Mexican migrant workers became a U.S. Astronaut

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José Hernández, former NASA astronaut, now encourages local students to aim for the stars with a powerful message.

A month ago, this son of immigrant parents with elementary education, visited high schools across Santa Maria Joint Union High School District with a presentation called: ‘Launching the Next Generation’ where he was emphatic that landing among the stars is possible if students reach for the moon.

One of his goals is to spark students’ interest in pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. “Role models are important, and they’re more effective if you speak and look like one,” Hernandez said. “They heard my background, and I think I empowered them to believe that anything’s possible. I’m preaching the American dream.”

After being hired with NASA in 2001 as an engineer, Hernández applied unsuccessfully for four years to train to be an astronaut. He was rejected 11 times. Finally, in 2004, NASA selected him to complete the training by 2006.

In the fall of 2009, Hernández was a crew member of the STS-Discovery, NASA’s 128th shuttle mission, and its second-to-last mission to finish the construction of the International Space Station.

While in space, he oversaw the transfer of over 18,000 pounds of equipment between the shuttle and the International Space Station with the assistance of robotics operations. The mission was completed with 217 orbits of the Earth, traveling over 5.7 million miles in 332 hours and 53 minutes.


Hernández told students about his upbringing and what, ultimately, led him to become an astronaut.

Hernandez’s family constantly migrated across California chasing the harvests of different produce, leading Hernandez, the youngest of four children, to spend each school year at three different schools across the state. He wasn’t considered fluent in English until he was 12, despite being born in America.

It wasn’t until his second-grade teacher visited his family after school that Hernández’s parents realized how important it was for their children to be educated with stability, leading them to take up permanent residence in Stockton.

Hernández said his dream to become an astronaut was conceived when he was 10, while watching the last Apollo 17 mission on TV in 1972 on television with his father. “When I saw that I said, ‘That’s what I want. I want to be an astronaut,’” Hernandez described, adding that after he saw a man walking on the moon on live television he proceeded to go outside and look at the almost-full moon. “The best thing I did that day was share with my father that I wanted to be an astronaut,” Hernandez said. “I said, ‘Wow,’ because my parents believed I could be an astronaut, and I never looked back since.”






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