As the youngest of four children in a migrant field worker's family from Michoacan, Mexico, Jose Hernández was born in French Camp, near Stockton on the family's annual trip from Mexico to Northern California. Due to the itinerant nature of following the harvests, the children did not attend school for more than a few months at a time, though they always took loads of homework back to Mexico for the Christmas holidays. One consequence was that Hernández was 12 before he felt comfortable with the English language. Fortunately, his parents decided to make Stockton their permanent home so that their children could gain an education and free themselves from the fields.
Though he remembered the end of the Apollo era and was "infatuated with becoming an astronaut" as a boy, it was his senior year of high school in 1979 before Hernández dedicated himself to that goal. "When I heard that Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz had been selected as the first Latino American astronaut, that sealed the deal for me," he said.
Vowing to pursue his dream by studying electrical engineering, he accepted a five-year program at Stockton's University of the Pacific (UOP), which offered generous financial aid, and was able to live at home. "That was what life dealt me and I embraced it," he said. "I decided to get the best (undergraduate) education I could and go to a better school to get a master's degree. That's what I ended up doing at UC Santa Barbara."
As a UOP work-study student at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory he met Sanjit Mitra, a UCSB professor of electrical engineering with projects at the lab. Mitra was impressed by the young man's thirst for education and encouraged him to apply to UCSB for his graduate degree. Later, Mitra would serve as graduate adviser and chair of Hernández's comprehensive examination committee.
Coming to UC Santa Barbara on a full Graduate Engineering Minority Fellowship, Hernández could for the first time devote himself full-time to his studies. He took his courses at warp speed and finished in 12 months. The only drawback was that Stockton is a long way from Santa Barbara and, like many, it was the first time he was away from his family. But UC Santa Barbara had the Minority Engineering Program, which became "a refuge, a (surrogate) family" for him, he recalled.
Hernández worked full-time at the Livermore National Lab after securing his Master of Science degree in 1986. He would stay there 14 years, mostly as an electronics and materials engineer, but rising to manage a program to dismantle Russian nuclear bombs to reduce the threats of nuclear terrorism. Along the way he learned to speak Russian and to fly a private plane. As much as he enjoyed the challenges of the lab, he constantly honed his skills to enhance his chances of becoming an astronaut-candidate. In 2004, the effort bore fruit, which led, with the help of friends, to the creation of the Reaching for the Stars Foundation to help inspire young people to learn math and science.
Excerpt from "New Heights: Alumni Astronauts Share their Stories," UCSB Alumni Association Coastlines magazine (Summer 2009, Vol. 40, No. 1)