Q&A with Astronaut and TRIO Alumnus José Hernández 

On October 26, 2023, COE hosted a virtual watch party celebrating the film A Million Miles Away, which chronicled the life story of NASA astronaut and TRIO alumnus José Hernández. Prior to the watch party, Hernandez engaged in an exclusive Q&A session with TRIO students, staff, and alumni. COE Board Chair Sam Blanco III moderated the conversation, transcribed below.

On October 26, 2023, COE hosted a virtual watch party celebrating the film A Million Miles Away, which chronicled the life story of NASA astronaut and TRIO alumnus José Hernández. Prior to the watch party, Hernandez engaged in an exclusive Q&A session with TRIO students, staff, and alumni. COE Board Chair Sam Blanco III moderated the conversation, transcribed below.

José Hernández: You know, we have conducted multiple screenings, but this marks our first-ever virtual screening, which is fantastic because it means we are reaching across the entire country. This offers a unique opportunity for everyone to enjoy a film that is likely to evoke some deep emotions, and even bring tears to your eyes. These, however, will be tears of happiness. The film delves into the inspiring journey of how I became an astronaut, highlighting the vital role played by my father and the critical support from my mother in keeping me on track. 

Then there’s Miss Young, who convinced my parents to abandon their nomadic lifestyle as migrant farmworkers and settle in Stockton, California, which we now call home. Not to forget my wonderful wife of 31 years, who, after I contemplated giving up on my dream following six rejections, provided unwavering support. She posed a simple yet profound question: “What did the selected astronauts have that you don’t?” That is when it struck me; I had much more work to do. 

Over the next six years, I became a pilot, attained scuba diving certification, became an elite athlete, and learned a third language. When I finally received the astronaut nod, I was overjoyed and proud of my roots as an Upward Bound TRIO student and tutor. I had tremendous support from the University of the Pacific and Franklin High School, where I benefited from all these programs. I was even honored with the TRIO Achiever Award in 2001, before my astronaut selection. 

This means greatly to me because it shows you already believed we were destined for great things. Your belief was well-founded, as in 2004, I was selected as an astronaut. Then, in 2009, we embarked on our journey into space, participating in the second-to-last mission to the International Space Station, effectively completing its construction. We transported 7 tons of equipment, scientific instruments, and ammonia tech assemblies for the station’s cooling systems, which we installed on the exterior. Our mission was a source of immense pride, and the station has been operational ever since, serving as a significant part of space history. I wish you all the best, and I’m here to answer any questions. 

Don’t miss your chance to ignite new sparks of greatness! The 2024 call for National TRIO Achiever Award nominations is officially live. Be the catalyst of change and nominate the next trailblazers, but hurry, the opportunity vanishes like stardust on Friday, March 29!

Sam Blanco III (SB3): One of the things that I remember growing up was when I went to UC-Davis again, coming from the Delano breakfast, and the movie I saw was “Stand and Deliver,” which inspired me to want to go into education. And this movie encourages these young TRIO students to enter the space industry or math and science. So, this will change generations of what you are doing here. So, I will start with the movie “A Million Miles Away,” how did that come about? And what made you want to share your story through this film? 

JH: Sam, that is a great question. My journey of reaching out to kids began when I was an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and as a GEM scholar, I got a fellowship for my graduate degree at UC Santa Barbara. From there, I started visiting local high schools and community colleges, passionately advocating for STEM education. When I became an astronaut in 2004, I realized I’d become an instant role model, and I embraced that role. I saw it as a superpower, like how elite athletes command respect and inspire kids. While my fellow astronauts enjoyed outings to events like the Fiesta Bowl and Indianapolis 500 races, I was visiting underserved communities in Houston, speaking at high schools and junior highs. My priority was inspiring our community. 

After leaving NASA, I embarked on a career as a public and motivational speaker, and people began asking me to author a book, so I penned “Reaching for the Stars,” chronicling my journey from childhood to space. Readers loved it, but mothers wanted something for their kids, leading to the creation of “The Boy Who Touched the Stars,” a bilingual children’s book published by Houston Press. My writing journey did not stop there; I was asked to write a middle-reader book, and “From Farm Worker to Astronaut” was born. It offers readers a firsthand experience of a 14-day mission to the International Space Station, complete with captain’s logs and flashbacks. 

This process allowed me to reach thousands and make a significant impact. Eventually, Hollywood expressed interest in my story. I was cautious about signing my rights away; it wasn’t until Select Films approached me that I felt confident. The owner, Mark Ciardi, who produced inspirational films like “Secretariat” and “McFarland, USA,” shared my vision and understood the power of inspirational storytelling. 

We went to six studios, and four said yes, which was unprecedented. We initially partnered with Netflix, but due to delays, we switched to Amazon Prime Video. In just four months, we started filming. It was a unique opportunity to reach millions, and while a big-screen release was an option, I wanted it to reach as many people as possible. Streaming allows schools and universities to use it as an educational tool, making a lasting impact. Like “Stand and Deliver,” I hope it becomes an instant inspirational classic for future generations. 

The Amazon Original film “A Million Miles Away” is an inspiring true story based on the life of TRIO Upward Bound and TRIO Student Support Services alumnus, 2001 National TRIO Achiever Award recipient, and author José Hernández, the first migrant farmworker to become an American astronaut. 

Sam Blanco III (SB3): Can you tell us about how being part of TRIO, Upward Bound, and Student Support Services impacted your journey and becoming an astronaut and a scientist? 

The impact of the TRIO Student Support Services programs on my life has been profound. I credit these programs with keeping me on track during my educational journey. In high school, I was a strong student, earning A’s and being part of the Abortorium. I attended Franklin High School on the East Side of Stockton, and my academic success in high school led me to enroll directly in a four-year university. 

However, my freshman year at the university was an eye-opener. I was taking challenging courses like Calculus, Programming, Physics, and Humanities, and I struggled immensely. The difficulty of these courses made me consider quitting, even for a fraction of a second. The only thing that prevented me from quitting was the thought of disappointing my parents, particularly my mom. I couldn’t bear the idea of telling her that I hadn’t made it in college and was quitting. They had made incredible sacrifices to provide me with opportunities for a better education, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. 

I knew I couldn’t quit, so I did everything I could to succeed. I set up study groups with friends, and I relentlessly attended my teachers’ office hours, seeking clarification and understanding. It was during this critical time that the Student Supportive Services programs played a pivotal role in my academic journey. 

The Student Supportive Services programs provided me with essential tutors in physics and calculus, subjects I desperately needed help with. They offered me academic support that was instrumental in my success. I became a regular presence at my teachers’ office hours, and although they may have grown tired of seeing me so often, I was determined to ensure I grasped the material fully. My determination to understand the coursework was unwavering. 

As I advanced in my education, I had the privilege of becoming a tutor within the TRIO program. I not only tutored college students but also provided support to high school students in the Upward Bound program. The University of the Pacific campus hosted an Upward Bound program that allowed high school students to come to campus on Saturdays for intensive 4-hour math and science sessions. I was actively involved in tutoring these students. 

TRIO and Upward Bound are incredibly close to my heart, and I immensely appreciate the impact these programs have had on my life.

Sam Blanco III (SB3): What kind of message do you hope viewers get from this film of learning about you and your family and the dedication and sacrifices you made to become one of the first migrant astronauts in space? 

 I hope the message they take is that they should dare to dream big without fear if they’re willing to put in the hard work to turn those dreams into reality. 

You are right, Sam; college can be tough, but having worked in the fields, picking cucumbers for 50 cents a bucket, cherries, pears, green tomatoes, and grapes, I can attest that those jobs are even tougher. Nothing compares to the challenging work our laborers undertake to ensure that all Americans have food on their tables. Their job is noble and essential. So, when people complain about the difficulty of college, I remind them that the alternative, working in the fields, is even tougher. Do not be afraid of demanding work; it is essential. Follow my father’s recipe. 

When I told my dad I wanted to be an astronaut, he gave me a five-step recipe for success:

  1. Determine your purpose in life – What do you want to accomplish? 
  1. Recognize how far you are from that purpose. 
  1. Create a roadmap for yourself to reach your goals. 
  1. Prepare yourself according to the challenges you will face. 
  1. Develop an unparalleled work ethic. 

Mix these ingredients well, and you have the recipe for success. I would add a sixth ingredient, Sam: perseverance. Never, ever give up on yourself. NASA rejected me, not once, not twice, not three or four times, but eleven times. It was not until the twelfth attempt that I was invited to join NASA’s 19th class of astronauts. It is crucial not to give up on yourself and to be your own biggest cheerleader. Believe in yourself. 

With a strong work ethic, you do not need to be exceptionally smart. I am not particularly intelligent; I simply work incredibly hard. That is the secret – challenging work. That is the recipe for success I have followed throughout my life. 

Sam Blanco III (SB3): Thank you. How did it feel to go out in space? What was the rocket’s name, and how did it feel returning to Earth?  

In STS-128, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, we launched on August 28, 2009, embarking on a 14-day mission to the International Space Station. I was the flight engineer, positioned right behind and between the pilots, offering a panoramic view as we rocketed into space. The flight engineer role is one of the busiest seats on the shuttle because I monitor all the systems during liftoff. 

The experience was truly unforgettable. As the three main engines roared to life, fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen from the orange tank, we felt a gentle vibration, followed by igniting the two white, solid rocket boosters, intensifying the sound and vibration. The sensation was incredibly powerful and vivid, making you believe the shuttle might disintegrate. But then, you are off, leaving the launch tower behind. 

In just eight and a half minutes, we went from 0 to 17,500 miles per hour, an experience even Disneyland would envy. It is as if three people gradually placed their weight on your chest, and at MECO (main engine cutoff), that sensation suddenly vanishes. Now, you are in space, still hurtling around the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, experiencing weightlessness. 

In space, you feel like a superhero, defying Earth’s gravity. You can float, fly, and enjoy a freedom that’s indescribable. The laws of physics as we know them on Earth no longer apply. Every 90 minutes, you complete an orbit around the planet, and you are in a constant state of amazement. During this mission, we had to rendezvous with the International Space Station, matching its speed and position to dock and perform crucial tasks. 

Words fall short of describing the awe and wonder of space, but I can assure you it’s a life-changing experience that words can’t fully convey. It is simply incredible. 

Kimberly Jones: Here is a question from the chat from the Upward Bound program at Boise State University. “Were you afraid when you went up into space in the rocket? And if so, how did you overcome it?” 

Space exploration is far from routine; it is inherently risky. We have lost two space shuttles and their crews, so I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t consider the dangers. I have five kids, and of course, I was concerned. However, it’s a calculated risk, and my passion for space exploration compelled me to pursue it. 

When the solid rocket boosters ignited, the noise level increased significantly, and the shuttle started shaking violently. For a moment, there is that 1% fear, an unexpected experience not fully replicated in simulators. But then, you feel the tremendous force pushing you into your seat, and your muscle memory takes over. Once you are in space, the most dangerous part, the dynamic launch, is behind you. Now, you are weightless, orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes. Fear dissipates, replaced by a focus on the tasks at hand. There is a lot of work to do, and you are ready to get to it. 

So, space exploration is risky, but it is also an incredible and transformative experience. Your perspective shifts once you are in orbit, and it is all about fulfilling the mission and contributing to our understanding of the universe. 

Sam Blanco III (SB3): What advice do you have for young TRIO students as they venture to college? 

College isn’t a walk in the park. It’s a new environment, far from home-cooked meals and familiar faces, and it’s natural to feel homesick. However, your purpose is clear: you’re there to secure an education that will propel your family’s future generations forward. It’s not solely a social gathering; it’s where you work diligently to achieve your goals. Don’t shy away from hard work. When you invest the effort, you’ll reap the rewards. People of color, especially, often face additional challenges due to disparities in their educational backgrounds, but by embracing hard work, you can overcome these obstacles. Remember, the harder you work, the luckier you become. 

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