News Column

NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez: From Life in the Fields to Outer Space

Aug. 13, 2009


NASA Astronaut Jose Hernandez, From Life in the Fields to Outer Space

Later this month, when Jose Hernandez joins the ranks of the dozen or so Hispanic astronauts -- and the handful of Mexican-Hispanics -- who have ventured into space, the gravity-defying thrust of the rockets will serve as a symbol of his life's journey.

Hernandez's quest to visit space began with his feet planted firmly in the earth, hoeing sugar beats in the fields as a child. Back then, Hernandez -- who didn't learn English until age 12 -- traveled with his migrant-farm family from Mexico to Southern California and back.

On Aug. 25, the 47-year-old engineer's dream is scheduled to culminate with the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery.

The seven-member Discovery crew will include another Hispanic, Danny Olivas, a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso. It will be the first NASA shuttle crew to include two Hispanic astronauts, according to the San Antonio Express.

Hernandez has already launched a Twitter account -- NASA's first bilingual Twitter feed -- to keep followers apprised of his day-to-day activities before the big event. He will continue the tweets in space.

The short passages range from the technical to the mundane.

"Had our L-10 physical, talked to the crew on board station and redlined our procedures. Now sleep shifting," he wrote on Wednesday, just minutes after posting this tweet: "Watching the Mexico vs USA soccer game. Awesome game!"

To get to where he is, Hernandez overcame long odds.

Despite growing up in a family that was constantly on the road, the determined Hernandez obtained a first-rate education. He eventually earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Hernandez says he was in the fields the day he decided to become an astronaut. It was during the early 1980s. Hernandez, a senior in high school at the time, had brought a transistor radio to keep him company. While hoeing sugar beats in his native Stockton, Calif., a report came on: the Astronaut Corps had just recruited Franklin Chang-Diaz, one of the first Hispanic astronauts to go into space.

"I was already interested in science and engineering," Hernandez said in an article posted on his Web site, "but that was the moment I said, 'I want to fly in space.' And that's something I've been striving for each day since then."

According to Wikipedia, Hernandez would be the ninth Hispanic to venture into space. Of the nine listed in Wikipedia, only three others -- Ellen Ochoa, Sidney Gutierrez and Olivas -- have Mexican ancestry.

Aboard the shuttle, Hernandez will serve as the flight engineer in the cockpit during takeoff and landing, as well as assist with robotics operations, among other tasks.

As a child, Hernandez, one of four children, said he spent much of his time traveling "the California circuit." Every March, they went from Mexico to Southern California, picking strawberries and cucumbers at farms along the tour, which took them northward to Stockton by November.

Every Christmas, the family would return to Mexico, where they remained for three months, until the cycle began anew.

After graduating high school in Stockton, Hernandez enrolled at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where he earned an electrical engineering degree. He also received a full scholarship to the graduate program at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Soon after, he landed a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where Hernandez worked on signal and image processing applications in radar imaging, among other things.

He later went on to work in x-ray imaging, and co-developed the first full-field digital mammography imaging system. This system has enabled doctors to detect breast cancer at an earlier stage than the traditional mammography techniques.

In 2004, Hernandez had to meet with a review board, and came face to face with his original inspiration: Franklin Chang-Diaz.

"It was a strange place to find myself, being evaluated by the person who gave me the motivation to get there in the first place," Hernandez said. "But I found that we actually had common experiences -- a similar upbringing, the same language issues. That built up my confidence. Any barriers that existed, he had already hurdled them."

(Click here to see Hernandez's NASA bio.)

Source: (c) 2009. All rights reserved.

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