Biography of José Hernández, Former NASA Astronaut

José Hernández (center) before a Space Shuttle launch
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

José Hernández (born August 7, 1962) overcame enormous barriers to become one of the few Latinos to serve as an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Raised in a family of field workers, he nevertheless found support for his dreams and achieved his goal of space flight. Hernández occasionally found himself in the midst of controversy because of his outspoken positions regarding Latin culture and immigration to the United States.

Fast Facts: José M. Hernández

  • Known For: Former NASA astronaut
  • Born: August 7, 1962, in French Camp, California
  • Parents: Julia Hernández, Salvador Hernández
  • Education: University of the Pacific, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Awards and Honors: Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Award (1995), Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists "Medalla de Oro" (1999), U.S. Department of Energy "Outstanding Performance Commendation" (2000), NASA Service Awards (2002, 2003), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory "Outstanding Engineer Award" (2001)
  • Spouse: Adelita Hernandez
  • Children: Antonio, Vanessa, Karina, Julio
  • Published Works: Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut
  • Notable Quote: "Now it's my turn!"

Early Life

José Hernández was born on August 7, 1962, in French Camp, California. His parents Salvador and Julia were Mexican immigrant 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 before returning to the U.S. in the spring. He remarked in an interview for the NASA website, “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.’”

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 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,” Hernández said in a controversial interview with the Los Angles Times.

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 12 straight 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, during which he oversaw the transfer of more than 18,000 pounds of equipment between the shuttle and the 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 the 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 with the Los Angeles Times. “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.”

Sources