José Hernández’s journey from farmworker to NASA astronaut

‘A Million Miles Away’ tells the story of how the son of Mexican migrant farmers became the third Latino in history to travel into space

A millones de kilómetros
Actor Michael Peña plays astronaut José Hernández in 'A Million Miles Away.'Daniel Daza (Daniel Daza/Prime)

Two moments shaped the destiny of José Hernández. The first occurred when he was just 10 years old. As the youngest son in a Mexican family, he was entrusted with holding up the rabbit ears – those ancient antennas – over the television set. It was an old, black-and-white contraption with shaky reception and the family wanted to watch the Apollo 17 Moon mission. Young José watched spellbound as Eugene Cernan became the last person to walk on the Moon, his first encounter with outer space.

The second significant moment occurred in 1981 when he completed high school in Stockton, California. He would be pursuing an engineering degree in college, but his dream of becoming an astronaut had never faded. That year, a piece of news would leave a lasting impact on him. While hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field, he heard on the radio that Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang-Díaz would become the first Latin American to travel into space. “He came from a humble family just like me and spoke with an accent just like mine. It sparked something in me, and I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘If he can do it, why can’t I?’” said Hernández.

He was turned down 11 times by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But in 2009, this son of migrant farmworkers from Michoacán (western Mexico) who grew up harvesting fruits and vegetables in American fields, became the third Latino in history to travel to space. A Million Miles Away, a new film by Mexican director Alejandra Márquez Abella, tells the story of how José Hernández fulfilled his dream of conquering the stars.

Márquez says that the movie starring American actor Michael Peña – also the son of Mexican migrants – presented a time management challenge as it aimed to tell a 50-year story in two hours. “We had the difficult task of creating montages that portray 10 years in two minutes. So I watched films by masters like Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson who do this so well. Their films are wonderful and very inspiring for me,” she said.

A millones de kilómetros
José Hernández (left) and actor Michael Peña (seated) on the set of 'A Million Miles Away'Daniel Daza (Daniel Daza/Prime)

Hernández was born in California in 1962, during one of his parents’ annual trips north from La Piedad, Michoacán. Every year, they harvested fruits and vegetables all over southern California for six months. When he was 10 years old and revealed his dream of becoming an astronaut, his father didn’t discourage him. Instead, he shared his recipe for success: “Define the goal and acknowledge that you are far from it. Then plan a path to the goal, study hard, and put the same hard work you do in the fields into achieving your dream.”

Hernández followed his father’s advice closely. In the 1980s, he earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of the Pacific, and a master’s degree in computer engineering and electrical engineering from the University of California. From there, he went to work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the next 14 years, where he contributed to the development of a new tool for the early detection of breast cancer. Finally, on his 12th application, Hernández was accepted into NASA’s astronaut program in 2004.

“I really wanted to make sure the film projected a very positive message that captured the spirit of my dad’s advice for reaching the stars, and the perseverance it requires. That was very important to me. I know that condensing a whole life into a two-hour film is tough, but Alejandra really hit the mark,” said Hernández during a visit to Mexico City to promote the film.

Alejandra Márquez Abella
Director Alejandra Márquez Abella during the filming of 'A Million Miles Away'Daniel Daza (Daniel Daza/Prime)

Márquez’s filmography includes Semana Santa (2015); Las Niñas bien (2018), in addition to a few episodes from the third season of Narcos: México (2021) and El Norte sobre el vacío (2022). The latter recently won Best Picture at the 2023 Ariel Awards that recognize the best of Mexican cinema. Márquez mostly makes small independent films, which is why she says that working with a large studio like Amazon on A Million Miles Away was a new and challenging experience.

“I often joke that it felt like my own personal NASA mission, given the immense effort involved,” said Márquez. “Surprisingly, it was a liberating experience. Portraying a character as admirable as José, who is truly incredible in every sense, was a departure from the darker films I’ve made in the past. It was vital to honor José's compelling life sincerely and in a profound and intriguing way.”

Both Hernández and Márquez highlight the challenges faced by Latinos in the United States. Hernández talks about the racism and discrimination he experienced, while Márquez describes her struggles with representation and inclusion in the film industry. “This year, we’re seeing more Mexican and Latino representation in mainstream films. However, the percentage of films with Latinos or Hispanics in lead roles still seems very low to me. The experiences of millions of people in the United States remain largely invisible in mass media. It’s clear we still have a long way to go,” said Márquez.

“Being Latino in the US is not necessarily easier now,” said Hernández. “With the current political climate, it seems even more challenging. However, as the Hispanic population continues to grow, the resistance will eventually subside, leveling things out. Progress is crucial, and with the support of family and the community, you can achieve your dreams.”

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