The Grade Blog

Tuesday, Mar 19 2013 06:13 PM

Astronaut from Central Valley shares life story with students

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez started out his talk at the Levan Center at Bakersfield College by telling the audience his background as a migrant farm worker who from age 7 to 13 picked every type crop between Bakersfield and Stockton as his family worked the fields.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Many Bakersfield College students gathered to get an autograph or take a picture of former astronaut Jose Hernandez including Yasmin Gallegos, right, a second-year student at BC. who plans to become a mechanical engineer. She said Hernandez has inspired her.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez received somewhat of a rock star treatment as many in the audience brought out their cameras to document Hernandez talk at the Levan Center at Bakersfield College.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Many Bakersfield College students gathered to get an autograph or take a picture of former astronaut Jose Hernandez including Yasmin Gallegos, a second-year student at B.C., who plans to become a mechanical engineer. She said Hernandez has inspired her.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

When former astronaut Jose Hernandez was a little boy growing up in Stockton, his Mexican immigrant family had a black and white television with rabbit ear antennas.

It was Hernandez's job to adjust, or if necessary, hold onto the antennas to improve reception during important television events.

So when Eugene Cernan made his historic space walk on the moon in 1972, Hernandez missed the first few minutes, occupied as he was with preventing snowy reception.

"The rest of the family was watching, and I was trying to peek at it from the side," Hernandez told an eager audience at Bakersfield College Tuesday as part of the Kern County Science Fair.

Today, Hernandez jokes with his three siblings that they might have become astronauts, too, if they had only helped him hang onto that thing. But nobody else would take a turn, so he, alone, absorbed the power of that space walk through osmosis.

The Apollo 17 mission captivated Hernandez, and at 9 years old, he decided he wanted to travel in space, too. He shyly confessed his dream to his father, Salvador, later that night.

Hernandez didn't learn to speak English until he was 12 years old, and his father was a farm worker with only a third grade education. But Salvador didn't laugh or dismiss the idea. Instead, the elder Hernandez told his son to sit down with him at the kitchen table.

The boy wondered if he was in trouble. The kitchen table was a frequent site for family discipline. But it wasn't discipline that Salvador doled out that day.

He told Hernandez he could achieve his dream with five ingredients. One: identify his life's goal, which he'd already done. Two: Recognize how far you are from that goal.

"I said, 'Pretty far, if I'm the son of a farm worker,' " Hernandez recalled. "He smiled and said, 'Good. It's good that you recognize that.' "

Three: Draw yourself a road map so you understand where you are and how to get where you want to go. You may be tempted to skip a few steps to get there quicker, and you might even get there, but you'll be unprepared.

Four: Get yourself an education.

Five: Apply the same work ethic you use when you're working in the fields on weekends and summers to your books, and when you graduate from college and you're a professional, apply it to your job.

If you do all those things, Salvador said, you'll have a shot.

Hernandez excelled in school and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of the Pacific and a master's in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California-Santa Barbara.

He worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore from 1987 to 2001, but never gave up on his dream.

For 11 years in a row, Hernandez applied to NASA's astronaut program, and each time he received a polite rejection letter.

But Hernandez studied his competition. He learned that those who had been accepted were often pilots and could scuba dive, so he learned how to fly and how to dive. After the United States announced it would cooperate with Russia on the International Space Station, he asked his employer for an assignment that required frequent trips to Russia, where he learned to speak his third language -- Russian.

NASA accepted him on his 12th try. In 2004, he joined the 19th class of astronauts, which is why he told students that he'd add a sixth ingredient for success, perseverance.

"You can be anything you want to be if you work hard and don't give up," he said.

Hernandez, 50, showed the audience a slide show of photos of him from infancy to adulthood, including a few childhood shots of him working alongside family members in tomato fields. Toward the end, there was one of him in his orange NASA space suit. That one drew applause.

"I hope you see a lot of yourselves in those pictures," he said. "I think it's important to let you know that this is where I grew up, in the Central Valley. There was certainly not a silver spoon handed to me. We came from humble beginnings."

Hernandez flew NASA's 128th shuttle mission as a flight engineer with the Discovery crew in 2009. The crew orbited the earth 217 times while delivering 18,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station, then landed at Edwards Air Force Base.

After the government retired the space shuttle program in 2011, Hernandez began working as an aerospace consultant. He also dabbled in politics with an unsuccessful bid for Congress last year, losing to U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

His Tuesday address was sponsored by a science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) collaborative grant between BC and Cal State Bakersfield.

BC engineering student Armando Casillas, 20, called the speech "very inspirational."

"I can totally relate to where he came from," he said. "And where he's gone, with family support, that gives me a lot of motivation to do more with my life."

Fellow BC engineering student Yasmin Gallegos, 21, said she came to the presentation because she is an aspiring astronaut and Hernandez is her role model.

"I decided to become an astronaut when I was 10 years old," she said. "A lot of people told me I couldn't do it, but when he went to space, that convinced me that I could do it, too."

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