America draws its strength from people like Jose Hernandez.
That Hernandez, one of four children in a migrant family from Mexico, would become an accomplished engineer and astronaut is nothing short of a spectacular achievement.
After all, he led something of a nomadic existence with his family, as they traveled from job to job and field to field. Hernandez, who was born Aug. 7, 1962, in French Camp but considers Stockton to be his hometown, didn’t learn to speak English until he was 12 years old.
Hernandez was hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field near Stockton and listening to his transistor radio when he heard an announcement some 30 years ago that would alter the course of his life. A man named Franklin Chang-Diaz had been selected for astronaut training. At the time, Hernandez was a senior in high school.
“I was already interested in science and engineering,” Hernandez said in his official NASA biography. “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.”
That’s a pretty ambitious agenda for anybody, let alone a teen-age field hand.
The success Hernandez has achieved is a remarkable testament to his hard work and determined perseverance. He overcame some very long odds to get where he is today.
Sure, he had help along the way. Some of that help came from government, of all places.
Unlike today’s Washington, a coalition of senators and congressmen were able to put partisan differences aside in the mid-1960s and work together, crafting legislation that one day would benefit Hernandez and thousands of Hispanics like him.
Had that not been the case, Hernandez certainly would have faced a much longer and much tougher row to hoe. He was barely 3 years old when Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1965.
Experts say that piece of legislation was a turning point in U.S. immigration and civil rights policy.
The 1965 Act all but ended immigration quotas that favored people coming to the United States from Europe. Under the legislation, things like job skills and family relationships, rather than geography, were used to establish immigration priorities.
In 1968, Congress passed the Bilingual Education Act which required schools to offer bilingual education programs.
Such legislation helped open the doors of education, and keep them open, for thousands and thousands of minority students – students like Hernandez, who seized the moment, and, ultimately, made it his own.
In 1984, Hernandez received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Pacific. Two years later, he was awarded a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“We are extremely proud to see a member of the Pacific family accomplish such an amazing feat of being one of only a few people in history to fly into space,” said Tom Zuckerman, chairman of Pacific’s Board of Regents. “By achieving his lifelong dream, Jose Hernandez has set an exemplary example of what one can accomplish by getting a college education.”
In 1987, Hernandez joined the staff at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His work there during the 1990s contributed to the development of a new tool used for early breast cancer detection.
Specifically, he helped refine signal and image processing skills for applications in radar imaging, computed tomography, acoustic imaging and other non-destructive evaluation techniques.
Hernandez and Lawrence Livermore colleagues also developed quantitative x-ray film imaging analysis techniques. These techniques allowed the “characterization of low-density materials for use in the development of an X-Ray laser as part of the Strategic
Defense Initiative Program,” according to his NASA biography.
He also played a key role in the development of “material x-ray transport models that allowed for the development of human tissue absorbed dose models useful for medical imaging applications.”
In 2001, Hernandez moved to NASA and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Since joining NASA, Hernandez has performed a variety of tasks, including helping to develop, evaluate and select advanced structural materials for use in aircraft and spacecraft structures, as well as their power and propulsion systems.
Additionally, Hernandez conducted research into basic engineering materials and applied general engineering mechanics principles to define the behavior of those materials.
In February 2006, he completed his astronaut candidate training.
On Discovery, Hernandez is serving as a mission specialist. The space craft carried a “multi-purpose logistics module” filled with science and storage racks to the station.
It was during the astronaut application process that Hernandez came face-to-face with Franklin Chang-Diaz, the man who first inspired him to dream about space travel.
“It was a strange place to find myself,” said Hernandez in his NASA biography, “being evaluated by the person who gave me the motivation to be there in the first place. 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 passed the test, of course. And today, his accomplishments certainly will inspire many others – not just to follow in his footsteps; but surpass what he has achieved.
That is, after all, the American way.