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Lunar landing sparked alumnus’ drive to become astronaut

Anniversary of Apollo 11 lunar landing rekindles memories in Jose Hernandez ’85 of later moon mission
Jul 19, 2019
José Hernández ’85 with a student of Pacific’s Reach for the Stars STEM academy in Oak Park
José Hernández '85 pauses with a student of Pacific's Reach for the Stars STEM academy in Oak Park, an expansion of the academy he helped establish at Pacific's Stockton Campus. The Pacific alumnus told the students about the moment he knew he wanted to be an astronaut and what it took to become one.

The 50th anniversary on Saturday of NASA's Apollo 11 mission to the moon conjures up tales of men and women with the "right stuff" putting everything on the line to go where no one had gone before.

José Hernández '85, University of the Pacific alumnus and former university regent, has his own inspirational tale.

He was 10 years old in his family's east Stockton home watching the December 1972 lunar landing of Apollo 17 on a black and white television with rabbit-ear antennas that his father repeatedly had him adjust for better reception. Hernández would adjust the rabbit-ears and lean over the TV to see the black and white images of the astronauts on the moon.

"Picture a kid in front of the TV kneeling down  watching an astronaut walking on the moon," Hernández recently told students at Reach for the Stars-Oak Park Academy, an expansion of the summer academy that teaches science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) he helped establish at Pacific's Stockton Campus.

He would go outside to look up into the evening sky and then back inside to see astronaut Gene Cernan walking on the moon.

José Hernández ’85
José Hernández '85 often returns to Pacific, where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, to speak with Reach for the Stars students and others about his inspirational story. 

"And that's when I told myself, 'Wow, that's what I want to be. I want to be an astronaut,"' he recalled to the students. 

As the family prepared for sleep, Hernández told his father of his desire to reach for the stars as an astronaut. His father asked why and was impressed by his son's recall of news anchor Walter Cronkite's narration of the moonwalk.

Hernández's father encouraged him and offered him a plan - Hernández calls it his father's "recipe" - for achieving his dream. It includes deciding what he wanted to be in life; recognizing how far he was from that goal; drawing a roadmap to his goal; getting good grades in school and going to college; and putting full effort into studying and, later, a career.

"I'm going to make you the same promise that my parents made me, that you're going to be able to reach for your own stars," Hernández told the academy students.

The recipe included attending Pacific as part of the Community Involvement Program, a comprehensive need-based scholarship and retention program for first-generation college students demonstrating the potential for sustainable leadership, community awareness and involvement.

José Hernández ’85
NASA's official portrait of José Hernández '85 before his mission to the International Space Station.

"Without the Community Involvement Program, I might not have earned my bachelor's degree in engineering or gone on to earn my master's degree or gone on to work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - or become one of the first Hispanic-Americans in space," Hernández said.

To achieve the ultimate goal, he added another ingredient - perseverance.

"NASA rejected me not once, twice, three, four or five times," Hernández told the students. "NASA rejected me 11 times. ... Imagine if I would have given up on my second, third, fourth or fifth try. You can't give up on your dream."

After each rejection, Hernández learned one new skill held by those accepted in the program ahead of him. Along the way, he became a pilot, learned advanced scuba diving and mastered the Russian language.

In May 2004, his perseverance paid off, and he joined NASA's two-year Astronaut Candidate Training program. He was a mission specialist on the Discovery mission to the International Space Station from Aug. 28 to Sept. 11, 2009, the 128th Shuttle mission and the 30th mission to the space station. Hernández left NASA in 2011.

He later founded Stockton-based Terri Luna Engineering, LLC and José Hernández Reaching for the Stars Foundation, a nonprofit promoting STEM education. He travels the country sharing his story and his father's recipe, and mentors students interning at Virgin Galactic, a commercial spacecraft company in the Mojave Desert. Hernández said that if a commercial spaceflight company called looking for pilots, he would be interested.

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