As a child, Jose Hernandez worked in the California beet fields alongside other family members, and his dad used the hard-labor experience to encourage him to “reach for the stars” in life.
Jose did that, and he later served as a Space Shuttle flight engineer and became the first Mexican-American astronaut to Tweet from space.
Now, years later, Hernandez spends his days speaking to school kids and young adults, encouraging them to pursue a career in science.
Hernandez will be the featured speaker at Creating a Culture of STEM, a presentation by Temple College’s Hispanic Serving Institution LEADS program. The program will be 9-11 a.m. April 17 in Taylor and April 18 in Temple. The Temple event will be at the Mary Alice Marshall Performing Arts Center, 2600 S. First St., and the Taylor presentation will be at the Taylor ISD Events Center, 3101 Main St, Taylor.
Hernandez said part of his presentation involves the telling of his life story.
“I grew up as a migrant farm worker,” he said. “My family and I would spend nine months a year working the fields in southern, central and northern California, then we would return to Mexico for three months.
“We would start the farm season harvesting strawberries in the southern part of the state, then move to strawberries and lettuce further north. Then we would pick cucumbers, cherries, peaches and green tomatoes in the northern part of California.
“In between, we would get work at beet farms,” he said. “We didn’t harvest beets, we used a hoe to thin them out and remove grass so they had room to grow.
“I always had a natural interest in math and science,” Hernandez said, “We moved around a lot, so my education was full of disruptions. But math is always the same: 1 + 4 = 5 in any language, in any country. That’s probably why I gravitated toward STEM classes, which are science, technology, engineering and math.”
An adult Jose began working for NASA as an engineer after 11 attempts of not being selected as an astronaut. Finally, in 2005, he was selected.
“I was an astronaut from 2005 until 2011,” he said. “I flew to the International Space Station as the flight engineer on the Space Shuttle Discovery. I left after the space shuttle program ended.
“I could have continued as an astronaut and flown to the (International) Space Station on a Russian rocket, and I was going to do that,” he said.
“Then I read the fine print: I had to spend three years before the Space Station mission training in Russia,” Hernandez said. “I had five kids, and I didn’t want to give up four years with them. The price was just too high to pay.”
Eva Margarita Munguía, executive director of student success at TC and director of the HSI grant project, moved to Texas from California recently. She became familiar with Hernandez and his work years ago.
“I knew he is active in presentations to kids about STEM,” she said. “I contacted him and told him what we are doing at Temple College, and he was delighted to be able to come tell his story.”
Munguía said the former astronaut will talk about his life before and after becoming an astronaut, and the opportunities available in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
“After his talk, students will have the chance to ask questions,” she said.
Munguía said the event is open to Hispanic and low-income high school graduates who will be enrolling at Temple College next year.
“We are trying to create a culture of STEM here at Temple College, and Jose has a good message to present to the students,” she said. “He has opened the door for Mexican-Americans at NASA and in STEM jobs in general.”
The Creating a Culture of STEM event was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, she said.
“Our mission is to reach out to Latino and low-income students who may be interested in STEM or health careers,” Munguía said. “We provide services and create a sense of belonging so they can achieve their goals.”
STEM-related programs at Temple College include dental hygiene, nursing, sonography, EMS, polysomnography, respiratory care and surgical technology.