From farmworker to NASA astronaut

2011-10-06T00:00:00Z 2011-10-19T20:48:00Z From farmworker to NASA astronautDavid Stoneberg Napa Valley Register
October 06, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Dr. Jose Hernandez, 49, gives all of the credit for motivating him to become a NASA astronaut to his parents, who were born in Mexico and were migrant farmworkers.

Hernandez, who spoke at the first Convocation to kick off the school year at Pacific Union College in Angwin last Thursday, said he grew up in a typical, migrant farmworker family.

His parents would pack up their car and with their four children head north in February. Their destination was Chino, in Southern California, where they would harvest strawberries for a month. Then the family headed to Monterey, then to Stockton and Modesto to pick the cucumbers and peaches and end the season in November in Northern California for the grape harvest. Their trip home to Central Mexico would take two and a half days and in February the trip would begin again.

As a boy growing up, he attended school as did his three older brothers and sister. In most families, though, when the young boys became 10 or 11 years old, they would be pulled out of school to earn a paycheck for the family. “My parents were different, though, because they left us in school,” he said.

When he worked with his brothers in the fields at the end of the day they would get into the car and his father would ask how they felt. The response, always was “tired” and “sweaty.” Their father then told them, “You kids have the privilege of living your future now.” It didn’t make any sense to young Jose, but he said his father would not force his children to get good grades or to go to school or to college. “If you don’t want to go to school, you an come work with me, seven days a week,” said his father, who only had a third-grade education.

Hernandez said his parents were “good motivators.” His mother, who also had a third-grade education, would see a man in a suit and tie and told her sons, “I want to see you that way.” Additionally, Hernandez added, “Mom said not ‘if’ but ‘when’ you go to college.”

One November, when he was in grade school, his father told his son they were leaving for Mexico next week. “So, be sure to tell your teacher that you need three months worth of homework,” his father told him. When Hernandez told his teacher, Mrs. Young, he got a different reaction than he expected. “Tell your parents, I’m going to come visit them after school,” she told Hernandez. When he relayed the message to his parents, he again got two reactions: His father, thinking his son was in trouble, was getting ready to take off his belt. His mother, though, started to scurry about, cleaning the house, cooking a nice dinner and putting out the red carpet for the distinguished visitor.

After dinner, Mrs. Young got down to business. She said she’d had the pleasure of teaching the four Hernandez children, but the parents needed to think of their kids as trees. “You need to stay in one place; you don’t transplant trees and expect them to grow strong,” Young said. Hernandez’ parents took the lesson to heart and the trips to Mexico became shorter and instead of migrating with the crops, the family drove straight to Stockton.

In 1972, when he was 9 years old, Hernandez was mesmerized by the Apollo space missions to the moon. The family watched as Gene Cernan and others did their moon walks. The youngster watched it on TV and then went outside and looked at the moon. He said he couldn’t believe it, but made a decision: “That’s what I want to be,” he said. He shared his dream with his parents. His father told him it was possible and offered to give him the ingredients to reach his dream. They were:

• Know what you want to be when you grow up;

• Understand where you are now and the steps you need to take to get to where you want to be;

• Be willing to work hard;

• Put your dream in your heart, don’t do it for anyone else; and

• Get yourself a good education.

Today, Hernandez said his parents “gave me a license to dream.” He told the crowd, “anything is possible if you put your mind to it.”

After getting straight As in high school, he went to the undergraduate program at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Surprisingly, he struggled and was “at the bottom of the heap.” He was ready to give up and quit college, but one of his professors came to Hernandez. He told the freshman that he could make it, that he had seen his work and it was good. “That’s what motivated me to do it,” Hernandez said. That and, he added, “I couldn’t imagine myself telling my parents I was dropping out of college. If you’re struggling, just work harder and you can reach any dream you have in life.” 

Hernandez earned his bachelor’s degree in 1984 and his master’s degree two years later. He worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1987 to 2001, when he joined the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. NASA selected him to be an astronaut in May 2004 and two years later he completed Astronaut Candidate Training. He served on the 128th Shuttle mission on Discovery from Aug. 28 to Sept. 11, 2009. Prior to the liftoff, Hernandez contacted Mrs. Young and when Discovery left the Earth, she was in the crowd.

During its trip of 5.7 million miles in 15 days, Hernandez said he saw the thin atmosphere surrounding the earth, which is “the only thing keeping us alive.” He added, “I became an instant tree hugger at that point. We’ve got to take care of our planet right now.”

As flight engineer he saw the earth from deep space. “What struck me was its beauty. You could not make out where the U.S. ended and Mexico began,” he said. “I had to leave Earth to find out that down there, we are just one.”

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