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José Hernández's journey from a migrant farmer to NASA's flight engineer in space is now a biopic

The inspiring true story of the former flight engineer is finally getting the Hollywood treatment with actor Michael Pena starring as Hernández.

José Hernández's journey from a migrant farmer to NASA's flight engineer in space is now a biopic
Cover Image Source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

José Hernández was pretty young when he witnessed the Apollo 17 moon launch on TV, but little did he know that further down the line, he would end up becoming the first migrant farm worker to travel to space as a part of NASA's team. Nearly four decades later, Hernández is all set to see his inspiring journey come to life on an Amazon Prime Video biopic titled "A Million Miles Away." The 61-year-old retired astronaut spoke to PEOPLE recently and recalled some of his fond memories.

Image Source: Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan stands by the American flag during his second space walk becoming the last man to walk on the Moon on December 12, 1972. (Photo by NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images).
Image Source: Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan stands by the American flag during his second spacewalk becoming the last man to walk on the Moon on December 12, 1972. (Photo by NASA/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images).

"Imagine a 10-year-old kid living in one of the worst parts of Stockton, California, watching an old vacuum-tube-technology console TV with the rabbit-ear antenna and grandma's mandatory knitting on the bottom," he told the outlet. "There's me kneeling by that black-and-white TV. And there's Gene Cernan, walking on the moon." The pivotal moon mission he described was the last leg of NASA's Apollo mission in 1972.

Image Source:
Image Source: Rick Sturckow, pilot Kevin Ford, and mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Jose Hernandez, John "Danny" Olivas, Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish member of the European Space Agency, and Nicole Stott address the media after arriving at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images)

But that ignited a passion within young Hernández to pursue a career in space exploration. As Amazon Prime Video roped in actor Michael Pena to essay the role of Hernández, countless people who had no idea about this Latino astronaut's struggle and path to success will get to see the true story unfold in theaters and the OTT platform after it was released on September 15, 2023. But Hernández's ascent from a farm worker from a Mexican family in California to NASA's flight engineer on the 2009 Space Shuttle mission STS-128 was not a cakewalk.



 

A young Hernández, along with his siblings, would help his migrant farm-working parents, Salvador and Julia Hernández, pick produce in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley in California. He would often miss school and relocate to multiple places with his family, but his fascination with stars and space did not fade away, reported NBC News. According to the Los Angeles Times, Hernández was rejected by NASA's astronaut training program 11 times before being selected at the age of 41 in 2004.

Four years later, he was selected as a mission specialist on the STS-128 mission, designed to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station. "I feel very humbled by the fact that there's a whole movie being portrayed about my life. I look at it as an opportunity to be able to inspire and empower people that see the movie. The moral of the story is it doesn't matter where you started, it matters where you point yourself towards and where you end up," he said.



 

Sitting down for yet another conversation over a video call with PEOPLE, Hernández revealed that he received the recipe for success from his father in 1972. "He did two important things that evening. He empowered me to believe I can do it and he sat me down and he made me justify why," Hernández said. He also shared the five ingredients of success passed down to him by his father. "Determine your goal, recognize how far you are from it, draw yourself a roadmap, prepare yourself for the challenge and work, work, work," he revealed.



 

Hernández went on to learn English by the age of 12, developed digital mammography imaging at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, studied electrical engineering at the University of the Pacific and University of California, Santa Barbara, and began astronaut training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas in 2001. "I tell folks, you gotta have that perseverance gene in you to keep trying and believing in yourself and keep improving yourself each time you fail," the former astronaut added.

He also described what his space flight felt like. "You go from zero to 17,500 miles an hour in eight and a half minutes. I mean, this is the best Disneyland ride you can ever hope for," he explained. But he also remarked how going to space was a humbling experience as well and how only a handful of people had the privilege to look at Earth from an astronaut's perspective. Hernández has also penned a book titled "Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut." He still resides in California with his family.



 

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