Never be afraid to dream big.
That’s what José Hernández told a rapt crowd of kids and adults at the Calistoga Boys & Girls Club April 12.
And he should know. As one of four children from a migrant farming family from Mexico, with hard work and perseverance, Hernández achieved his boyhood dream to become a NASA astronaut.
Much of his childhood was spent on what he calls “the California circuit,” traveling with his family from Mexico to southern California each March, then working northward to the Stockton area by November, picking strawberries and cucumbers at farms along the route. Then they would return to Mexico for Christmas, and start the cycle all over again come spring.
Hernández, 56, said he didn’t learn English until he was 12 years old. His education started to gain traction when, at the urging of his teacher, the family moved to Stockton permanently when he was in second grade.
Then, in 1972, the live television broadcast of the final Apollo 17 moon landing made a profound impression on him.
Hernández described watching the last Apollo mission on a black and white TV, adjusting the rabbit ear antennae. He walked outside to look at the moon, then back inside to watch astronaut Gene Cernan walk on the moon.
“I said ‘that’s what I want to do.’ I can still hear (newsman) Walter Cronkite,” Hernández said.
What really solidified the dream was hearing, on a small radio in the middle of a beet field, that Franklin Chang-Diaz had become the first Hispanic-American chosen to travel into space.
“I was hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field near Stockton, and I heard on my transistor radio that Franklin Chang-Diaz had been selected for the Astronaut Corps,” said Hernández, who was a senior in high school at the time. “I was already interested in science and engineering, but that was the moment I said, ‘I want to fly in space.’”
Hernández would eventually meet Chang-Diaz one day, and stressed the importance of role models.
“At first I thought, ‘someone beat me to it.’ Then I thought, ‘someone is paving the way. It empowered me. I thought ‘if he can do it, why can’t I?’”
Still, that dream seemed a long ways away.
Hernández shared his dream with his parents and his teachers. His father, who had a third-grade education, gave him a recipe for success that Hernández has never forgotten.
“He said ‘I think you can do it’ and he gave me five ingredients.”
First, decide what you want to be, then recognize how far you are from your goal.
“I looked our situation and said, ‘Father, I don’t think I could be any farther.’”
His father told him to draw a roadmap to keep him focused. He also said stay in school, go to college and work hard. Put effort into your books and your job, and always give more than what people expect, he said. Lastly, maintain perseverance.
His father’s advice served Hernández well, although later on he had to be reminded about the perseverance part.
After graduating high school in Stockton, Hernández enrolled at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering and was awarded a full scholarship to the graduate program at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he continued his engineering studies.
In 1987 he accepted a full-time job with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he worked on applications in radar imaging, computed tomography, and acoustic imaging. Later in his career, he helped develop the first full-field digital mammography imaging system and has won recognition awards for his work on that project.
All the while he pursued his dream. Hernández explained how he applied to NASA six times and was rejected again and again.
Discouraged after the sixth rejection, he crumpled up the letter, threw it away, and gave up on his dream. His wife found the paper and said it wasn’t like him to lose hope, and that if he gave up on his dream the question ‘What if?’ would gnaw at him the rest of his life.
That’s when Hernández made a point to find out what made a successful candidate and went to work making himself stand out from those with only the minimum qualifications for NASA.
He learned to be a pilot. He got certified as a scuba diver, and ran marathons. He also took a job representing Livermore and the U.S. Department of Energy on Russian nuclear non-proliferation issues that had him traveling to Russia. So he also learned to speak Russian.
After applying to NASA again, Hernández received a letter back that began, ‘Dear Mr. Hernández,’ not ‘Dear applicant.’ But still he was denied. In all, he was denied 12 times before he was finally accepted into the program in 2004.
At NASA he underwent physical and psychological examinations, as the pool of trainees was whittled down.
In 2009, his dream came true when he served as flight engineer on Space Shuttle Discovery on a mission to the International Space Station.
In describing the flight, Hernández said the rocket goes from 0 to 17,500 mph in 8-1/2 minutes.
“It’s the best ride at Disneyland,” he said.
Hernández spent 14 days in space as the crew delivered seven tons of equipment.
In 2016 he was the recipient of the National Hispanic Hero Award, presented by the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. He now heads a foundation called Reaching for the Stars that emphasizes that with education, anything is possible.
At the Boys & Girls Club, Hernández told the kids in audience, “Never give up.” He advised the adults in the room to keep the kids motivated and positive.
“One day we’re going to read about one of these kids that have passed through the doors of this Boys & Girls Club, and that they are going to Mars.”