|The space shuttle Discovery will lift off tomorrow with seven astronauts for the supply run to the space station. (Joe Raedle/ Getty Images)|
Years after working in the fields, astronaut set to head into space
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - He toiled in California’s farm fields alongside his Mexican migrant worker parents and didn’t learn English until he was 12. Now Jose Hernandez, NASA astronaut, is about to rocket into orbit.
His parents will be in Florida tomorrow for the scheduled launch of the space shuttle Discovery, as will his two older brothers and sister, who also worked the cucumber, sugar beet, and tomato fields back in the 1960s and ’70s.
“A lot of kids loved summer vacation,’’ Hernandez said in a recent interview. “We dreaded it because we knew what that meant. That meant we were going to be working seven days a week in the fields.’’
Hernandez, 47, vividly recalls being dusty, sweaty, and tired in the back seat of the family’s car after a hard day of labor.
Before starting the engine, his father would look back at his children and tell them, “Remember this feeling, because if you guys don’t do well in school, this is your future.’’
“That was pretty powerful,’’ Hernandez recalled.
All four took it to heart. Each graduated from high school, “a moral victory’’ for third-grade-educated Salvador and Julia Hernandez, now 71 and 67 years old, respectively. Each went to college, “the icing on the cake,’’ according to their youngest child.
“And of course now being an astronaut, to them that’s just unbelievable,’’ said the soon-to-be spaceman. “I think they’re higher in orbit than we’re going to be in.’’
Discovery is scheduled to blast off in the wee hours tomorrow. NASA has cleared it for liftoff, and the weather looks promising. Seven astronauts will be on board for the space station supply run, including two Mexican-Americans and a Swede.
Those who deal with migrant farm workers also are soaring.
“When we see an example like Jose, we are so happy,’’ said Matthew Sheaff, a spokesman for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs in Washington. “It’s an example that anybody can break the cycle of poverty that they live in.’’
“It’s a great model for these farmworker kids’’ just now heading home after picking crops this summer, Sheaff added.
Children are, in fact, Hernandez’s focus.
He has formed a “Reaching for the Stars’’ foundation in Stockton, Calif., his hometown, to inspire local youngsters to excel in math, science, engineering and technology.
Hernandez, who was born in French Camp, Calif., remembers asking his second-grade teacher for a couple months’ worth of homework when it came time for the family’s annual pilgrimage back to Mexico. The teacher urged his parents to set down roots; his father eventually started a trucking business.
Two things pointed Hernandez toward space.
During the Apollo moon landings, Hernandez would hold the rabbit ears steady on the family’s old black-and-white TV for good reception. He likes to kid that “it’s through osmosis that I got to become an astronaut.’’
Then, during his senior year, he learned of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s first Hispanic astronaut, Franklin Chang-Diaz, who was born in Costa Rica.
“I said, ‘Hey, if he came from poor, humble beginnings and he became an astronaut, if he can do it, why can’t I do it?’ ’’ Hernandez said.