Migrant farmworker turned astronaut — Jose M. Hernandez visits area charter school with message

Published 12:57 pm Monday, January 22, 2024

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PORT ARTHUR — The fact Space Shuttle Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base after being in space 14 days in 2009 was poetic justice for astronaut Jose M. Hernandez.

The site was approximately 60 miles from where he picked strawberries as a child in a migrant farm working family, Hernandez said during Bob Hope School Boots & BBQ: Celebrating National School Choice Week on Monday.

Hernandez’s story is one of determination and perseverance, and he credits his father for giving him a license to dream big.

Hernandez was born to a migrant farming family, whose parents spent nine months in California moving around for work and three months in Mexico. His second grade teacher convinced his parents they needed to stay in one place, and that led to less missed school and learning the English language.

Then one day in December 1972 when he was 10 years old in the fifth grade, Hernandez watched TV as Gene Cernan walked on the Moon with Apollo 17.

“That’s the last time we sent humans to the surface of the Moon and there I was a 10-year-old watching it in awe,” Hernandez said. “I would go outside that cold December evening, see the Moon and come back inside.”

He remembers Walter Cronkite narrating the moonwalk and Gene Cernan talking to Mission Control in Houston.

“And there I was in Stockton, California, watching that black-and-white TV and I said to myself, ‘that’s what I want to be. I want to be an astronaut,’” he said.

Hernandez went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and masters in electrical and computer engineering and worked from 1987 to 2001 at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

His proudest professional moment, he said, was being one of the two inventors to develop the first full-field digital mammography imaging system.

He continued to add to his education and job skills and in 2001 joined NASA, serving in different capacities related to engineering leading up to the 128th Shuttle mission.

He is the author of several books, one of which was made into the movie, “A Million Miles Away” starring Michael Pena.

“The whole moral of the story as to why I showed you this, remember where I started, a migrant farm-working kid who lived at or near poverty,” he said. “It’s believing in your kids, believing in your community.”

There may not be children who want to be an astronaut, but they may want to become a doctor or find the cure for cancer, he said.

That’ why it’s important to support charter schools, he said, as they give children the opportunity and license to dream big and tools to convert the dreams to reality.

The California native has ties to Port Arthur through a niece who lives in the city and a grand-niece who is a student at Bob Hope School.

Hernandez is part of the Jose M. Hernandez Reaching for the Stars Foundation, a 501 c3 nonprofit with goals to educate students and the community about STEM fields. The foundation also assists with scholarships to help those focusing on STEM pathways.

For more information on the foundation, go to astrojh.org.

Bob Hope School Superintendent Dr. Bobby Lopez provided a glimpse into the charter school’s future plans to expand to Pasadena and of its successes.

Students attending Bob Hope School start with the Montessori and dual language program and later take courses in Mandarin Chinese and in music lessons on strings.

For more go to bobhopeschool.org.

— Written by Mary Meaux