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2004 Astronaut Candidate
Jose Hernandez, Mission Specialist

Jose Hernandez, Mission Specialist. Photo credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center. NASA engineer Jose Hernandez remembers exactly where he was when he heard the first Hispanic-American had been chosen to travel into space.

"I was hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field near Stockton, Calif., and I heard on my transistor radio that Franklin Chang-Diaz had been selected for the Astronaut Corps," says Hernandez, 41, who was a senior in high school at the time.

Image left: 2004 Astronaut Candidate Jose Hernandez. Click for High Resolution Image. Photo credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center.

"I was already interested in science and engineering," Hernandez remembers, "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."

Hernandez's work is now paying off. He has been selected to begin training as a mission specialist this summer as part of the 2004 astronaut candidate class.

One of four children in a migrant farming family from Mexico, Hernandez -- who didn't learn English until he was 12 years old -- spent much of his childhood on what he calls "the California circuit," traveling with his family from Mexico to southern California each March, then working northward to the Stockton area by November, picking strawberries and cucumbers at farms along the route. Then they would return to Mexico for Christmas, and start the cycle all over again come spring.

"Some kids might think it would be fun to travel like that," Hernandez laughs, "but we had to work. It wasn't a vacation."

After graduating high school in Stockton, Hernandez enrolled at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering and was awarded a full scholarship to the graduate program at the University of California in Santa Barbara, where he continued his engineering studies. In 1987 accepted a full-time job with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he had worked as a co-op in college.

JOSE HERNANDEZ, Mission Specialist

AGE: 41

BORN: French Camp, California

EDUCATION:BS, Electrical Engineering, University of the Pacific, 1984; MS, Electrical Engineering, University of California-Santa Barbara

CURRENT JOB: Chief, Materials and Processes Branch, Johnson Space Center

QUICK FACT: His work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1990s contributed to a new tool for early breast cancer detection.

QUOTE: Recalling the selection of Hispanic-American astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz: "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."

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, a tool in the early detection of breast cancer. Most recently, he has worked as a NASA engineer at Johnson Space Center in Houston, supporting Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions.

During the astronaut application process, Hernandez had to meet with a review board. That's where he came face-to-face with his original inspiration: Franklin Chang-Diaz.

"It was a strange place to find myself, being evaluated by the person who gave me the motivation to get there in the first place," Hernandez says. "But I found that we actually had common experiences -- a similar upbringing, the same language issues. That built up my confidence. Any barriers that existed, he had already hurdled them."

Hernandez smiles. "Now it's my turn."