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A license to dream and reach the stars: An interview with Astronaut José M. Hernandez

The power of a dream – it can change worlds – be it the world of the person who dreams it, or the entire world we live in. They don’t always come true, but for those who believe and work hard enough, they can, and do become reality. Wherever you come from, no matter your roots, you have the power to change your world and reach for the stars. One such dream was that of the youngest son of a family of Mexican migrant farm workers, who upon seeing the Apollo 17 moon landing of 1972, dare said to his Papi, “Quiero ser astronauta!”
“Quieres ser que?!” May have been the reply, but the response was nothing more than inspiring and supportive from the family of former NASA Astronaut José M. Hernandez, who received a simple five step recipe from his Papi to achieve his dream.

1) Define what you want to be when you grow up.
2) Recognize how far you are from that goal
3) Draw yourself a road map, from where you understand you are, to where you understand you want to go. You must delineate and write out every step, because you’re going to be tempted to skip steps, you may get there, but you’re not going to be well prepared, so the moral of the story is to draw yourself a road map and don’t take short cuts
4) Get yourself a good education, you need an education, sin educacion no hay nada
5) The same work ethic you put out in the fields when I take you to out to pick cucumbers and tomatoes, you put it in your books, and when you graduate college, you put it in your job, always always give more than what people ask for. You do all that and you can be whatever you want.

After enduring a rigorous school career from the humble days of trekking through four different California school districts during the months of the harvest, to the fast paced collegiate workload that gave him doubts but didn’t outweigh the desire to make his family proud. He graduated with honors and received his Masters in Electrical & Computer Engineering from from UC Santa Barbara.

Joining NASA in 2001, José went through numerous underwater simulations before flying on Space Shuttle Discovery in ’09 as their Flight Engineer, going around the earth every 90 mins, a total of 14 Days at 17,500 mph, 217 rotations, delivering over 17k lbs of equipment to the international space station. He remembered seeing the Earth from space for the first time and realizing how borders are human made, that we create our own problems and boundaries. Getting a chance to see the atmosphere refracting off the sunlight and seeing how thin our atmosphere truly is, he became an instant tree hugger, realizing as “Stewards of our planet” we need to be the ones to take better care of our home world, before we go seeking out other potential planets – such as Mars – to live on.
“Humans are explorers by nature, we still want push the envelope and learn the unknown. We need to concentrate on being good stewards of our own planet first, but for our life on Earth to continue it’s still something that’s important, especially for the spin off technology that comes with developing the space program, for every dollar that is spent on NASA and technology there’s a $7 return in the private industry.”
After floating around in space, eating peanut butter and jelly tortillas, and other space concoctions, José admitted that readjusting to Earth’s atmosphere is quite a challenge, and experienced a lot of vertigo. It takes about a day to get back to normal, but still feels similar to being on the ocean and still feeling the waves when you get home.
Though his missions went relatively smooth, with the unpredictability of space, they had a few close calls docking with the international space station. “We lost some of the booster jets and had to over compensate with the main jets to land, and another instance where we had to adjust the atmosphere in the station to avoid hitting space debris.”
With our very own Latino version of Reed Richards, Señor Fantastico José M. Hernandez, is just the kind of role model our children need more of. With his foundation, Reaching for the Stars, which targets Latino youth and the importance of learning Science Technology, Engineering and Math, José is also being honored by our friends at LISTA (Latinos in Information Sciences and Technology Association) on March 4th, in Miami, at the Emerging Technology Leadership Summit.

Whether you choose to follow the same recipe his father gave to him, or care to carve your own pathway in life, it will always stand true, that in life, there are “No short cuts, no substitute for hard work, you have to put in the time to reap the benefits later, if you want it bad enough it’s worth it.” Oh, and of course, watch out for Predators and Xenomorphs, unless you know how to operate robotic space arms like José… Or Ripley.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

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