Jose Hernandez: Shooting for the Stars

Jose Hernandez is an engineer and retired astronaut who spent his summers in the 1960’s and 70’s picking fruit and vegetables with his family throughout California’s Central Valley. His is the ultimate success story, having overcome significant barriers to become one of the few Latino astronauts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Hernandez was born August 7, 1962 in French Camp, California, but considers Stockton, California his hometown. His family is originally from La Piedad, Michoacán, Mexico with indigenous Purépecha roots. As a child, his family lived six months in Mexico and the other six in the United States. During his time in the U.S., Jose worked alongside his family and other farmworkers in the fields of California. Jose spent much of his childhood traveling with his family from Mexico to southern California each March, then migrating northward to the Stockton area by November, picking strawberries and cucumbers in farms along the route. When the harvest season ended, they returned to Mexico, and repeated the cycle the following spring. During his childhood, Jose attended numerous schools and did not speak English until he was 12 years old. Jose’s parents, despite only having a third-grade education, were committed to their children’s success in school, and made sure they attended as much as possible. While giving a recent speech at Pacific Union College, Jose said about his parents: “They were master motivators. After a long day of work, my dad would look each of us in the eye and say, ‘You have the privilege of living your future now. If you don’t want to go to school, you can come back and work with me in the fields seven days a week.'” When Jose was dusty, sweaty and tired in the back seat of the family’s car after a hard day of labor, his father would look back at his children and tell them, “Remember this feeling, because if you guys don’t do well in school, this is your future.” Jose and his siblings took their father’s advice seriously, as each graduated from high school and went on to college. Jose focused hard on his studies, and in doing so, realized he was very interested in science and math. At the age of nine, Hernandez discovered his dream of becoming an astronaut when he watched the final Apollo lunar mission on television. When he shared his sky high dream with his parents, they sat him down at the kitchen table and told him that he needed to have what they called the “ingredients to succeed:”

  • a clear goal;
  • an understanding of the steps to get from where you are to where you want to be;
  • hard work;
  • education;
  • and corazón—heart.

At the urging of a concerned teacher, the Hernandez family decided to live permanently in Stockton, in order for the children to have a better opportunity for educational success. During high school, Jose participated in Upward Bound, a Federal program that prepares students for college. After graduating from Franklin High School in Stockton with good grades, Hernandez enrolled at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of the Pacific in 1984. In 1986, Hernández earned a Master’s of Science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara. After earning his master’s degree, Hernandez began applying for a career with NASA. He also learned Russian, became a certified pilot, and took SCUBA training. After years of applying, Jose was eventually accepted into the NASA program at the age of 41, and moved his family to Houston, Texas to accept a job as a research engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. In 2009 his dream became a reality when he was assigned to be the flight engineer on mission STS-128 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. After retiring as an astronaut, Hernandez was urged by President Obama to run for Congress representing a part of California’s Central Valley. Unfortunately, he did not win the election. Hernández is married and has five children. For several years, his wife, Adela, ran a Mexican restaurant just outside the Johnson Space Center gates, called Tierra Luna Grill, which is Spanish for Earth Moon Grill. Jose believes that all children, especially those who come from a similar background as himself, should have the same educational opportunities he did, despite whatever challenges they may face. He hopes more children will be inspired to learn about math and science.