Marta R. Metelko
May 14, 2004
NASA Engineer Will Soar Among The Stars
Image left: 2004 Astronaut Candidate Jose Hernandez. Click for High Resolution Image. Photo credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center.
NASA engineer Jose Hernandez remembers exactly where he was when he heard the first Hispanic American was selected to travel into space.
"I was hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field near Stockton, Calif., when I heard on my transistor radio Franklin Chang-Diaz was selected for the astronaut corps," Hernandez said. Hernandez was a senior in high school when he heard the news. Today he is a NASA Astronaut Candidate.
"I was already interested in science and engineering," Hernandez said, "but that was the moment I said I want to fly in space. And that's something I've been striving for each day since then," he added.
One of four children in a migrant farm working family from Mexico, he spent much of his childhood on what he calls "the California circuit." His family would travel from Mexico to southern California following the crop season.
Hernandez recalls one constant in his life, even at the height of the harvest season, "It didn't matter where we were, our parents always had us in school in the spring and fall." he said. "It wasn't if we went to college, it was when. That was motivation," he remarked. He didn't learn English until he was 12 years old, but that did not slow him down.
While in high school, one of his teachers recognized his strength in math and science. She encouraged his parents to settle in order to stabilize their children's schooling. In 1971, the family made Stockton their permanent home. Hernandez attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton. He studied electrical engineering, thanks to a scholarship program for local students who couldn't afford tuition. He was required to work in a student co-op job, which helped him gain experience in a real-world professional environment, while paying his own living expenses during college.
To his delight, Hernandez found a co-op position at the prestigious Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory operated by the University of California.
He graduated from Pacific in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering. Hernandez was awarded a full scholarship to the graduate program at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he continued his engineering studies. He finished the graduate program with a master's degree. In 1987 he accepted a full-time job with Lawrence Livermore, testing the physical properties of various construction and fabrication materials.
"I think my co-op experience with them was the key," he said. "I was a low-risk hire, because they already knew what I was about. And thank heavens for the co-op program; without it I'm not sure where I would have ended up."
His research also helped forge new medical in-roads. In the early 1990s, his work at Lawrence Livermore with a commercial partner led to development of the first full-field digital mammography imaging system. It was an innovative solution for early detection of breast cancer using digital imaging technology instead of standard X-ray film.
Throughout his career at Lawrence Livermore, Hernandez continued to chase his dream of soaring to the heavens. In 2001, his longtime dream came closer to reality. He was concluding an assignment for Lawrence Livermore in Washington, when an engineering position opened at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), Houston. "Everything seemed to fall into place," Hernandez said.
At JSC, Hernandez managed nearly 60 civil service and contractor employees who provide technical materials analysis and scientific support for Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions. Hernandez's team plays a key role in returning the Shuttle to flight, developing repair-kit materials for the orbiter's thermal protection system, including wing and tile components.
Hernandez hasn't forgotten the lessons his parents taught him. After joining JSC and moving to the Houston area, he founded the local chapter of the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists (SMAES). He is the SMAES national president. In 1999, Hernandez was honored with the Medalla de Oro or the Medallion of Gold, the highest recognition given by the organization for professional and community contributions.
For information about NASA astronaut selection and training, visit:
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