June 29, 2023 -- José Hernández was the same age as Woodward Park Middle School students when he “dared to dream to go up into the stars to be [the first Mexican-American] astronaut.”
The year was 1972. Hernández sat in front of his black-and-white television, fiddling with the rabbit cables searching for the right connection for a moment he would never forget.
“I ran outside to view the moon and ran back inside to watch the Apollo 13 [space mission] take off,” said Hernández. As a child, he found himself speechless watching the astronaut communicate from the moon to the mission control center here on Earth. “That’s when I realized my dream of being an astronaut.”
Thirty-seven years later, Hernández achieved his dream of reaching the stars, and he did so as the first migrant farmer to visit space.
Now retired from space travel, the former astronaut uses his story to inspire students to dream higher than the sky through his book Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut.
A story about the effects of empowerment and the importance of perseverance, the book takes the reader on a journey of Hernández’s life. From spending summers harvesting crops to learning English at 12 years old, Hernández kept his eyes on the stars.
With engineering degrees, the California native went on to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he developed the first full-field digital mammography imaging system. He calls the invention, which aids in the early detection of breast cancer, his “proudest achievement.”
In 2001, Hernández joined NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Here, he applied for astronaut training eleven times before finally being selected in 2004. After five more years of intense training, Hernández’s dream had come true.
“It only takes eight-and-a-half minutes to get into space,” he shared with the students when describing his ascent into the atmosphere of Earth. “It’s hard to breathe from the pressure, and then, before you know it, you’re floating.”
Third in line to pilot the spacecraft, during his mission Hernández and his team rotated around the Earth 217 times in 14 days.
Fourteen years following his return to Earth, the husband and father of five is now a bilingual author of children’s books, has completed 11 marathons, and harvests his own label of wines.
As his story comes full circle, Hernández left his audience of fifth through eighth graders with this one last thought: “Just remember that whatever it is you are doing, don’t be afraid to enjoy the journey.”