Biography of Former NASA Astronaut José Hernández

Jose Hernandez
Octavio Solorzano / Flickr

To say that José Hernández is a role model would be an understatement. Raised in a family of field workers, Hernández overcame enormous barriers to become one of the few Latinos to serve as an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

A Child Migrant

José Hernández was born on August 7, 1962, in French Camp, California. His parents Salvador and Julia were Mexican immigrants who worked as migrant workers. Each March, Hernández, the youngest of four children, journeyed with his family from Michoacán, Mexico to Southern California. Picking crops as they traveled, the family would then proceed north to Stockton, California. When Christmas approached, the family would head back to Mexico and in spring return to the States again. He remarked in a NASA interview, “Some kids might think it would be fun to travel like that, but we had to work. It wasn’t a vacation.”​

At the urging of a second-grade teacher, Hernández’s parents eventually settled in the Stockton area of California to provide their children with more structure. Despite being born in California, the Mexican-American Hernández did not learn English until he was 12 years old. 

Aspiring Engineer

In school, Hernández enjoyed math and science. He decided he wanted to be an astronaut after watching the Apollo spacewalks on television. Hernández was also drawn to the profession in 1980, when he found out that NASA had picked Costa Rican native Franklin Chang-Diaz, one of the first Hispanics to journey into space, as an astronaut. Hernández said in a NASA interview that he, then a high school senior, still remembers the moment he heard the news.

“I was hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field near Stockton, California, and I heard on my transistor radio that Franklin Chang-Diaz had been selected for the Astronaut Corps. I was already interested in science and engineering, but that was the moment I said, ‘I want to fly in space.’”

So after he finished high school, Hernández studied electrical engineering at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. From there, he pursued graduate studies in engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Although his parents were migrant workers, Hernández said they prioritized his education by making sure that he completed his homework and studied consistently.

“What I always say to Mexican parents, Latino parents is that we shouldn’t spend so much time going out with friends drinking beer and watching telenovelas, and should spend more time with our families and kids . . . challenging our kids to pursue dreams that may seem unreachable,” said Hernández, now husband of restauranteur Adela, and a father of five.

Breaking Ground, Joining NASA

Once he completed his studies, Hernández landed a job with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1987. There he engaged in work with a commercial partner that resulted in the creation of the first full-field digital mammography imaging system, used to spot breast cancer in its first stages.

Hernández followed his groundbreaking work at Lawrence Laboratory by closing in on his dream of becoming an astronaut. In 2001, he signed on as a NASA materials research engineer at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, helping with Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions. He went on to serve as the Materials and Processes Branch chief in 2002, a role he filled until NASA selected him for its space program in 2004. After applying for a dozen consecutive years to enter the program, Hernández was at long last headed to space.

After undergoing physiological, flight, and water and wilderness survival training as well as training on Shuttle and International Space Station systems, Hernández completed Astronaut Candidate Training in February 2006. Three-and-a-half years later, Hernández journeyed on the STS-128 shuttle mission where he oversaw the transfer of more than 18,000 pounds of equipment between the shuttle and International Space Station and helped with robotics operations, according to NASA. The STS-128 mission traveled more than 5.7 million miles in just under two weeks.

Immigration Controversy

After Hernández returned from space, he found himself at the center of controversy. That’s because he commented on Mexican television that from space he enjoyed seeing an earth without borders and called for comprehensive immigration reform, arguing that undocumented workers play an important role in the U.S. economy. His remarks reportedly displeased his NASA superiors, who were quick to point out that Hernández’s views did not represent the organization as a whole.

“I work for the U.S. government, but as an individual, I have a right to my personal opinions,” Hernández said in a follow-up interview. “Having 12 million undocumented people here means there’s something wrong with the system, and the system needs to be fixed.”

Beyond NASA

After a 10-year run at NASA, Hernández left the government agency in January 2011 to serve as executive director for Strategic Operations at aerospace company MEI Technologies Inc. in Houston.

“José’s talent and dedication have contributed greatly to the agency, and he is an inspiration to many,” said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “We wish him all the best with this new phase of his career.”