The amazing journey of the son of a struggling itinerant Mexican worker in California who became a NASA astronaut through sheer determination and his devout Christian faith despite multiple setbacks, is being told in a new movie: A Million Miles Away. It is based on José Hernández’s memoir: Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut.
The Christian Post reports José’s story is said to be among the most remarkable in modern history. He felt God calling him to become a NASA astronaut at just 10 years old. The space agency rejected him from its program 11 times, but he would make history aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2009, the first shuttle mission to send two Latino astronauts into space.
The now 61-year-old told the Christian news outlet: “I attribute my success to pure naivete. At 10-years-old in 1972, I remember watching our rabbit-ear TV, and I saw astronaut Gene Cernan walk on the surface of the moon while [legendary news presenter] Walter Cronkite narrated the moonwalk. And I told myself: I want to be an astronaut. I felt a clear calling from God.”
Despite his incredible success, José Hernández said his story isn’t really about him. He believes it’s about the people who surrounded him, supporting his dream, including his migrant farmworker parents, his second-grade teacher Miss Young, and his wife Adela.
“My journey isn’t about one individual’s quest to turn a dream into reality. It’s about my teacher who went to my house to convince my parents to stay in one place. It’s about my wife who taught me perseverance and propped me up. It’s about my father, who only had a third grade education, but had the wisdom to give me a powerful, five-ingredient recipe when I told him I wanted to be an astronaut. He said: Find your purpose in life; recognise how far you are; draw a roadmap; if you don’t know how, learn; and when you think you’ve made it, you probably have to work harder.”
“It’s so wonderful that the movie is being well received because my concern was that perhaps the audience would look at it as a plight of a Mexican immigrant family tale, but it’s really more about family values. I learned the value of working and the ethics of responsibility early on,” he explained.
José didn’t speak English until he was 12 and due to the constant moving of his father, he attended a number of different schools until Miss Young recognised his potential and encouraged his parents to settle down in one place and help him get an education. He worked tirelessly to pursue that education, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering. He worked for over a decade at the prestigious Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California where he co-developed the first digital mammography imaging system.
Despite his success, his path to becoming an astronaut wasn’t easy. NASA overlooked him 11 times with each rejection, making his desire to go into space even stronger.
“I didn’t take it wrongly that NASA didn’t select me, because there were over 12,000 that applied for 10 to 15 slots. So it’s very competitive. I understood that. So, every time, I said: I’ve just got to make myself more competitive so that NASA can’t say no. I found out that most astronauts not only met the minimum requirements, which I did, but also were pilots or scuba-dived, were elite athletes or knew a third language. So, I said: I’ve got to do this too.” He reportedly got both a pilot’s licence and a scuba diving certification.
”I didn’t get frustrated because I was enjoying the consolation prize of having a graduate degree and working as an engineer at a world class research facility. That wasn’t a bad consolation prize. I was happy with who I was. It wasn’t the end of the world if I never got selected. But aspiring to become an astronaut gave me so much joy. You’ve got to enjoy the journey. If you’re not enjoying the journey, chances are you’ve picked the wrong goal for yourself.”
José was finally accepted into NASA’s training program in 2004 at the age of 42 and five years later had his dream come true. He recalled the awe-inspiring moment of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, describing the exhilarating ride from zero to 28,000 kilometres per hour and the intense pressure experienced during lift-off. Notably, it was Miss Young who sat next to his parents as he blasted off into space.
A devout Catholic, José carried with him a St. Christopher medal, a rosary and a scapular as a sign of his commitment to Christ. “People ask me: How can science and religion coexist? It’s very easy, because science tells you how things happen, the rules of engagement. Religion tells you why they happen. This is why they could coexist and this is why I could coexist as a Christian scientist.”
“I am one of less than 600 people who has had the privilege of seeing our Earth from the outside. That’s an exclusive club. To see Earth from the distance, Canada, the US and Mexico, Central America, you realise: Wow, we’re just one race, the human race. And we’re all God’s children. How sad it is that humans have created borders because all they’re designed to do is divide us.”
José Hernández and his wife have instilled a strong work ethic in their five children who are all college-educated. The oldest has a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and a dream of also becoming an astronaut.
Today, he’s still living in California and still picking grapes with his father, but on their own vineyard. He hopes his story is a testament to the power of faith, family and values and serves as an inspiration not only for aspiring astronauts, but for anyone striving to overcome obstacles and pursue their dreams.
A Million Miles Away can be seen on some streaming services in Australia.