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A Star is Born: José M. Hernández

Jan 24, 2021
A Star is Born: José M. Hernández

By: Angel Zhong

Astronaut and Pacific alumni Jose M. Hernandez talks his journey from student to the stars 

At ten years old, José M. Hernández watched the Apollo-17 moon landing mission. Although what he witnessed unfolded in black-and-white, the dream that resulted from it was profoundly vivid in every sense of the word. To him, the sky was the limit and seeing it in person became the goal: he wanted to become an astronaut.

The son of migrant farm workers, Hernández spent much of his childhood working alongside his family up and down California. While the mission was being broadcasted, Hernández was tasked with adjusting the rabbit-ear antennae of their anachronistic TV set to ensure continuous reception. It was then that he felt an almost instantaneous passion emerge.  

“But that's when it sort of hit me. I said, you know, this is what I want to be in life. I want to be Gene Cernan. I want to be out there in space, just like he is,” he said. “And so, that's how the dream became.”

When he broached his newfound ambition to his father, Hernández was felicitously met with words of encouragement and a five-step recipe for guaranteed success. His father advised him to (1) define his goal in life, (2) recognize how far he was from his goal, (3) draw a roadmap to his destination, (4) educate and prepare himself, and (5) invest effort and time. Later on, Hernández would make his own contribution to the recipe: perseverance.  

“He gave me a recipe. And I followed it. And I'll tell you it works. I still use it today. It works. It works. I would add once one more ingredient; it’s six ingredients. This one is my own. And that is perseverance,” said Hernández. “In other words, never give up on your dream. As long as you're willing to fight for it, prepare yourself for it, and work for it. Never give up.”

After graduating from high school, Hernández continued his education at the University of the Pacific, where he would go on to receive his bachelor’s in electrical engineering. Subsequently, Hernández completed his master’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara and began working full-time at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. There, Hernández proved instrumental in the development of the first full-field digital mammography imaging system, a breakthrough that enabled the earlier detection of breast cancer. It also gave rise to an entirely new field dedicated to computer-aided diagnosis. 

 Hernández eventually went on to achieve his dream in 2004 after being chosen for the 19th astronaut class. Though he was turned down eleven times, Hernández, aided by the sixth ingredient, kept pushing forward. 

Hernández finished his Astronaut Candidate Training in 2006 and became a mission specialist in the 2009 STS-128 mission on Discovery, the space shuttle.  After leaving NASA, he became the Executive Director of Strategic Operations at MEI Technologies.  He ran for the US House of Representatives in the 10th CA Congressional District in 2012.

Since then, Hernández has come full circle. He now runs an aerospace consulting firm in his hometown, Stockton, as well as a vineyard with his father. 

A full-feature Netflix film on Hernández’s life is set to be released in 2022, and a premiere at Pacific is something he is keeping in mind.