ep. 16 - José Hernández: Retired Astronaut, Business Man, & Author


NASA engineer José Hernández is one of four children born into a migrant farming family from Mexico and spent much of his childhood on what he calls "the California circuit" - traveling from Mexico to southern California each March, working northward to the Stockton area by November, picking fruits and vegetables at farms along the route before returning to Mexico for Christmas to start the cycle all over again in the spring.

After graduating high school in Stockton, Hernandez enrolled at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering and was awarded a full scholarship to the graduate program at U.C. Santa Barbara.

In 1987, he accepted a full-time job with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where he had worked as a co-op in college. During his time there, Hernandez worked on signal and image processing applications in radar imaging, computed tomography, and acoustic imaging.

Hernandez won many awards for his work, and also worked in the international arena where he represented Lawrence Livermore and the U.S. Department of Energy on Russian nuclear non-proliferation issues. He was selected to begin training as a mission specialist as part of the 2004 astronaut candidate class.


Gail Davis: Our in studio guest today is José Hernández. First Hispanic-American chosen to travel into space. I had the pleasure of hearing his A-speak last night, and I'm thrilled that you are able [00:01:30] to stop by today, and share your story with our listeners. Welcome!

José Hernández: Thank you Gail. It's a pleasure being here. I really do enjoy coming here to Texas, to Dallas. I was based here in Texas for 12 years as an astronaut, down in Huston, and always a pleasure coming back. More importantly getting to know the GDA family here.

Gail Davis: Thank you! Why don't you start by ... I know we don't have time for the full story, but why don't you start by telling people [00:02:00] how you got interested in becoming an astronaut.

José Hernández: That interest always existed in me. I come from a family of migrant farm workers. We used to go out in the farms early in the morning, to pick whatever was in season ... cucumbers, cherries, tomatoes, grapes. We would go at dawn, before the sun came up. We would go away from the city, away from the light pollution, and [00:02:30] there in open fields, I would go outside ... my favorite part of the day, to just look up in the stars, and they were crystal clear, you could see them. I always dreamed about being able to touch one, or being up there.

When I was 10 years old, I was lucky enough to see the very last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, 1972. It was when Gene Cernan was walking on the surface of the moon. You can imagine a 10 year old kid, watching [00:03:00] a black and white TV, with rabbit ear antennas, and just being mesmerized at this astronaut, Gene Cernan walking on the surface of the moon, and hearing the narrator. I still remember his name, Walter Cronkite, narrating that moonwalk. I was just mesmerized, and that's when I was hooked. And I said ... I put the stars with the astronaut together, and I said: "That's what I wanna be, I want to be an astronaut!"

Gail Davis: But it didn't come easy, did it?

José Hernández: No, of corse not. As a migrant [00:03:30] farm worker ... you could imagine our typical lifestyle was to spent 9 months in California, 2 months in Southern California, 2 months in Central California, 5 months in Northern California, following the harvest of the crops. Then going back to my parent's hometown in Mexico for 3 months, and then repeating that process. It was a very nomadic lifestyle and absolutely, it wasn't easy. That's [00:04:00] why I always tell folks that, even though I was born here in the United States, I wasn't fluent in English until I was about 12 years old, because it was so much moving around.

Gail Davis: My niece is an educator. And I have so much respect for teachers who genuinely care about their students. I found the story about your teacher so heartwarming. Can you share with our listeners, the teacher that played such a role in that nomadic lifestyle changing.

José Hernández: Absolutely. It was [00:04:30] in our last stop, one of these years, I was in the 2nd grade. Our last stop in Northern California- Stockton California, when my dad gets up as he typically does, one week before we go to Mexico. He tells all the kids: "Go to your teachers, tell them that next week we go to Mexico. Please prepare 3 months worth of homework", because that's our time in Mexico. We would do that homework in my grandma's kitchen table from 8 to 12 in the morning. I went ahead [00:05:00] and did that, I told my teacher that. She basically looked at me and said: "Tell your dad and mom that I'm gonna go and visit them tonight." Of course I was scared, because a teacher never comes to our house.

I guess this was the ... I have older siblings, and we go to the same schools each year. This was the 4th time she was doing this for our family. I guess 4th time was a charm. She went to our house in [00:05:30] ... knowing certain terms, miss Young ... beautiful Chinese-American lady, fresh out of college, basically told my parents that this lifestyle had to change. Because she has had the privilege of having all 4 of their kids to the youngest one, at present, which was me, in her class, and that she saw a lot of potential. She basically convinced my parents [00:06:00] to leave this nomadic lifestyle, to settle in once place, which was Stockton, to cut our trips to Mexico, from 3 months to 3 weeks. And that's when our education begun to gain traction. And that's how we started our public school education in a more rigorous format.

Kyle Davis: Yesterday I talked to another [00:06:30] speaker on the podcast. She was mentioning that, it was having one person that came into her life that really changed things for her. It sounds to me like it was the same thing with miss Young. Was I right?

José Hernández: Absolutely, it was the same thing with miss Young. However, I have to say that a lot of people made a difference in my life. You look at my parents that only have a third grade education. The fact that my mom set us down everyday after school, and made us do homework, and we weren't [00:07:00] allowed to finish till we were done. The fact that we always sat down around the kitchen table as a family and stay together. The fact that my father would go out in the middle of winter, pruning trees in the freezing weather, and fog, just so that we could get an education. The fact that our high school teachers, helped us a lot in terms of taking advanced courses and calculus to prepare us for college.

A lot of people helped out [00:07:30] in this process, absolutely. But in particular miss Young. One of the things I want to share with you is that, when I blasted off into space, we were allowed to invite a few people to the launch. And of corse foreign Hispanic family, man, that's usually our immediate relatives ...

Kyle Davis: Right.

José Hernández: ... but I had a few spots left and I actually had the school district look for miss Young, she had just retired. She was sitting right alongside with my parents at Cape Canaveral during that launch, [00:08:00] and I was so proud of that.

Kyle Davis: That's awesome. One of the stories, one of the narratives that I hear a lot, in just talking to friends whose parents are maybe from other countries, or they came here from another country, is just this immigrant tenacity to work and to overcome. It may not be okay for the current generation, but then the next generation has the opportunity. It sounds to me like that what's you have, and that's the American dream, folks.

José Hernández: Absolutely.

Gail Davis: I was impressed at how you fostered [00:08:30] that love for education. If I recall correctly, you said one of your sons has his PhD?

José Hernández: Yes. I have 5 kids, like a good catholic.

Gail Davis: I love that.

José Hernández: I have 3 in college right now.

The oldest one, he's only 22 but he started his PhD program in aerospace engineering at Purdue. He's got a fool scholarship, thank God for that. This is his first year at Purdue, working on his PhD. I have another daughter, [00:09:00] who's in her second year at Loyola Marymount, in business administration, business management. Then I have another daughter, who's a freshman at my alma mater UC Santa Barbara. She's majoring in marine biology. Then I have 2 more down the pipeline, this is why I have to work a lot.

Gail Davis: I was gonna say: "Bring the speeches, bring the speeches"

José Hernández: Exactly!

Gail Davis: That's awesome. I know that you speak Spanish, and you speak a little bit of Russian. I thought it might be kind of fun ...

José Hernández: Da.

Gail Davis: ... if you did a little quick shout-out to our global listeners.

José Hernández: [00:09:30] Absolutely!

[Spanish 00:09:30].

I give my conferences in Spanish, and also [Russian 00:09:37].

So "My name is José Hernández, I'm a cosmonaut". Absolutely!

Kyle Davis: [Russian 00:09:48]. That's all I know.

José Hernández: [Russian 00:09:51].

Kyle Davis: That and [Russian 00:09:53].

José Hernández: The one you gotta know, Kyle, it's [Russian 00:09:58].

Kyle Davis: I have no clue [00:10:00] what that is.

José Hernández: "I love you". See?

Kyle Davis: Oh, okay.

José Hernández: It's Valentine's day, right? You gotta know that one!

Kyle Davis: A lot of my friends in school were either Ukrainian or Russian, so all I learn were the curse words and I just ...

Gail Davis: Let's not repeat those.

José Hernández: Let's not repeat those.

Kyle Davis: Yes, we're not gonna ...

José Hernández: I know those too.

Kyle Davis: We'll discuss later.

José Hernández: Exactly.

Kyle Davis: You graduated from high school, and you settle down. What's the trajectory from there to yours ... space term trajectory.

José Hernández: "Trajectory", that's a good one! No pun intended. [00:10:30] The trajectory to be an astronaut is basically ... there's two pass to becoming an astronaut.

The first one is through the military side. You could belong to one of the branches of military. But basically those ... you're typically a test pilot. You have couple thousand hours jet fighter experience, those type of experiences. That's how NASA hires those astronauts, through the military.

Then, the [00:11:00] second half of astronauts, are through the civilian side. These are the smart guys ... I'm just kidding, I'm just kidding, military folks! These guys are the ones that typically have the PhDs, and work the science. That's the area that I came in through, is through the science side of the house. It wasn't easy though, because typically you need to have a degree in science, graduate degrees in science, you've gotta be very [00:11:30] accomplished in your field. When you apply, every time you apply for astronaut, there's anywhere from 10 to 15 slots available, and more than 18000 qualified applicants, or submittances. Those are some pretty heavy odds. That's why it took me 11 times. Was until the 12th time, that I finally got the go-ahead to be part of the 19th class [00:12:00] of astronauts in 2004.

Kyle Davis: What's that selection process like? When you go there ... I've seen some stuff on Discovery Channel or whatnot, but it's like, obviously the rigorous physical stuff. They put you in the wheel, "barf wheel" or whatever it is, that just spins at million miles an hour. Well, what is that selection process like, and what are they looking for. I know that you had a previous background with the department of energy, but I'm just curious, what are they looking for, do you even know?

José Hernández: Well, it's changes from time to time [00:12:30] in what that process is, and it could have changed since I went through it. For example, when you saw an Apollo aero, they put them through the "barf wheel" as you called it. Well, when they did that to us, they didn't put us though that.

They'll put you through tests like claustrophobia, to make sure you're not claustrophobic, they make you write things, make sure you'll well-versed in writing, and communication skills. They give you [00:13:00] a battery of psychological test, where you answer up to, I think about 500 questions. They get a nice psychological profile of what this person is, that is trying to become an astronaut, make sure he's not a nut job kinda thing. So they go through all that, and then of course all the physical tests. Very rigorous.

If there's something wrong with you, NASA's gonna find out. They poke and prod you, where the sun don't shine. You're [00:13:30] not 40 yet, Kyle, but you'll soon find out what I'm talking about.

Kyle Davis: I got 12 years.

Gail Davis: What kind of a psychological profile makes the ideal person to go into space, because at the end of your presentation you showed the video of the blastoff. I do think that would be exhilarating and exciting. But once you're out there, I can't even wrap my head around being comfortable with the thought that it would come back safely. I wonder [00:14:00] what it takes to be a person that has the make out to do that.

José Hernández: I think it takes a certain personality. You gotta want it, and there's risk associated, of course, but you can't let the fear dominate you. I think that's what they're looking for, they're looking at people that are calculated risk takers. Not careless risk takers, because there's also careless risk takers that will do anything, right? So, I think they look at that balance. But I tell you, there's nothing scarier [00:14:30] in answering psychological test, because you're always saying: "Well, how are they gonna interpret this?".

I'll give you one, Kyle. There's one question that says: "I love pink roses. Yes or no?".

Kyle Davis: I don't ...

José Hernández: How are you gonna answer that, Kyle?

Kyle Davis: I don't even know. Are there even pink roses?

Gail Davis: Yes!

Kyle Davis: Wow, see? I don't even know that. I buy the red ones, the white [00:15:00] ones, and the yellow ones.

José Hernández: But you gotta say "yes" or "no". Do you like pink roses?

Kyle Davis: Can I give a "sure"? I'm so indifferent, I'm like "eh, whatever".

José Hernández: It's a binary "yes" or "no". See what I'm saying?

Kyle Davis: Just ones and zeros.

José Hernández: Yes. How do you answer that? Yes, I like flowers, I like roses but, okay, would they construe that as being bad, or something negative, or positive? You just go with your gut feeling, say "you know, I'm just gonna answer my truth"... truthfully everything, and not try to outsmart them. [00:15:30] Let them see who I am, and whoever I am, that's what they get.

Kyle Davis: Maybe you're a guy who likes pink roses, maybe you aren't.

José Hernández: Yes. And by the way, I do like pink roses ...

Kyle Davis: There you go.

José Hernández: For the record. I answered "yes".

Kyle Davis: Okay, so, I'm dying to know, just because I've never been to space, and maybe I'll be able to buy that Virgin Atlantic, or Virgin Galactic or whatever it is, opportunity that Richard Branson said they have there.

José Hernández: Yes.

Kyle Davis: But what is space like for those people who don't have, I guess what's going to be $250000 or 20 million dollars to get to Russia.

José Hernández: Yes, [00:16:00] it's about $30 million to go to the International Space Station, with the Russians, and about $250000 with Richard Branson for a 15 minute sub-orbit aura, right? It's not all the way up in the orbit, sub-orbit aura.

Kyle Davis: I'll call it "space".

José Hernández: Okay.

If you could just imagine being strapped on to that rocket, and you hear the three engines go off. You feel the general rumble of the three engines, you hear the roar, even though you have your [00:16:30] helmet on, insulated from noise but you can still hear it. And about one second later, the two solid rocket boosters on the side, the white ones, light up. Those puppies, they're solid rocked boosters so when they light up, you know you're going somewhere. You don't know where, but you know you're going somewhere because you can't turn them off. Then the vibration all of a sudden is violent, the noise level goes up in order of magnitude. [00:17:00] And just when it's vibrating, you think this whole thing it's gonna fall apart, you feel the push in your back and that's lift off.

It only takes eight and a half minutes to get up there. In other words, you go from 0 to 17500 miles an hour, in eight and a half minutes. You pull 3 G's, equivalent to someone who weights three times as much as you, pressing on your chest. So it's even hard to breathe. It's [00:17:30] a right that even Disneyland is envy of. They can't even recreate that here.

Kyle Davis: Right.

José Hernández: That's how it's like getting up there. And once you're up in space, you reach MECO, which is called "main engine cutoff". All of a sudden, the 300 pound gorilla disappears from your chest, and all of a sudden you feel loosey-goosey in your seat because you're in microgravity, so you're ready to float but your seatbelt keeps you in your seat. Now you're going at a [00:18:00] height of about 300 miles above ground, around the world, once every 90 minutes at that speed, which is amazing. 14 days, I think I went around the world 214 times. Covered more that 5.9 million miles. I wish we had like a "frequent flyer" program for the airlines, because I'd be cashing-in a lot of tickets. Unfortunately we don't have that.

Kyle Davis: You'd be an American Airlines platinum for life.

José Hernández: Exactly.

Kyle Davis: [00:18:30] I just touched on it, with the Richard Branson Virgin Galactic, and even being able to buy your way on to the space station, through the Russians. What are your thoughts on the privatization of certain aspects of that through, whether it's space acts ... and I'm forgetting ...

José Hernández: Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic ... yes.

Kyle Davis: Yes. What are your thoughts on that or, especially with NASA, and where we're at today?

José Hernández: I think it's great. Anytime you could get private [00:19:00] industry interested in space exploration, and they're willing to invest their own dollars into that, that's one last dollar the US tax payer has to spend. So I think it's great.

Now, on the other hand, let's not floor ourselves. These guys ... Pay Sax, Elon Musk and Blue Origin, they have contracts with NASA, so they are getting federal dollars to work on space exploration. It's not all their dollars so, [00:19:30] I think we gotta clever at the dates to the case. However, I think it's great that you get other entities aside from NASA, involved in space exploration.

A lot of people always argue the fact that "Why should we keep investing in space, when there's so many social problems down here, on earth?". I would only point to a study out there, that says that for [00:20:00] every federal dollar that the government spends on NASA, there's 7 dollars that are generated in the form of tax-revenue, as a result of technology that gets commercialized to private entities, and then get put into products. You just have to look at your cellphone to realize, that was possible as a result of NASA technology. You gotta look at DIRECTV, [00:20:30] that you get your programming, satellites ... guess what? Guess where that came from? That came from NASA.

All these technologies that are being commercialized, is a result of the US investing in NASA. And that's why I say ... if you wanna keep America competitive, it's the science, it's the engineering where you have to make that investment, so that we can remain technologically advanced, and be ahead of the competition.

Kyle Davis: I completely agree. I used to [00:21:00] work out in Silicon Valley for a number of tech companies. I remember the most fascinating people that I always met with, were people who said something like "I could've worked NASA but, I'm now working at Tesla" or "I'm working at these other companies". There's kind of ... I did read an article once about the Branger in effect, and its impact on NASA with people going elsewhere. I think at the end of the day you're right where, you really just have to make those investments in science, or exploration, or whatever you wanna call it ...

José Hernández: Yes.

Kyle Davis: ... engineering.

José Hernández: [00:21:30] And you attract a certain person to NASA because, you're right, there's so much talent out there that NASA can use. But NASA in itself tends to attract the best and the brightest, because of the subject matter. The people that come on board, obviously can get jobs better paid in Silicon Valley, and a lot of people do that. But the peoples that stay behind ... it's because they have that passion for space exploration, [00:22:00] and money isn't everything for them. That's why you have people like us, that wanna break the doors down open to go and work for NASA.

Gail Davis: Speaking of NASA attracting the best and the brightest, I just saw the new movie "Hidden figures", this past weekend. Have you seen the movie?

José Hernández: Absolutely! Yes, it's a great movie, it's a great said way into ... let me put a plug-in for my book. I just got through writing a book called "Reaching for the stars". [00:22:30] Hopefully, one of these days we get that put into a movie, because I think it's a very heartwarming story of reaching the ultimate American dream, and that is of becoming an astronaut.

Gail Davis: I agree. I think that's ... what is so appealing about your story, and about that popular movie is, you see the science but there's people behind it, and their stories.

José Hernández: Exactly. It's the story behind ...

Gail Davis: It's the story behind it. In addition to you speaking about [00:23:00] your space travels, and your inspirational story, I believe you also talk about the importance of technology. You have a talk on that, don't you?

José Hernández: Yes I do. Yes, yes.

Gail Davis: Tell us a little bit about that.

José Hernández: It's about ... the title that I have is "Staying on the leading edge of technology". And basically it talks about how we're used to growing in a linear fashion, as opposed to exponential [00:23:30] growth. Whenever we hit these break-throughs, technological break-throughs, it allows for exponential growth.

In getting that ... exponential growth creates a disruptive stress scenario, that a lot of people take advantage of, and a lot of people fall by the wayside so it's ... the talk centers around how to recognize [00:24:00] those technological stress opportunities, so that you can become the next Apple, the next Steve Jobs, the next Elon Musk, the next Facebook. All these things that you can take advantage of. And then, we talk about stories where perhaps they didn't take advantage of it.

You look at Kodak. Kodak is in the business of taking pictures. You look at the history of art taking pictures ... that [00:24:30] has grown tremendously, the amount of pictures. So what do we say: "Why, if the picture taking grew, why didn't Kodak grow?". Well, their mission was to sell paper and film to capture memories. That was their mission. Had they just changed that to say: "We're in the business of capturing memories, regardless of what medium we use", they would have still been in business today. Not bankrupt.

Kyle Davis: To me, it's [00:25:00] the most upsetting thing. When you just see a company, or you see somebody who has just a brilliant idea and they're scared.

José Hernández: Yes. And you know, the ironic part of that, is that the digital camera was invented by a Kodak employee. And they shelved it. They didn't take it out.

Kyle Davis: And that's issue, it's mind boggling. It frustrates me beyond, more than anything you'll know. When [00:25:30] somebody has a good idea, or they're sitting on something good, and they're just scared, or they just don't think that they have to. They're resting on their laurels, or whatnot. There's so much opportunity with technology, and it changes all the time but you gotta embrace change. You know how to go super fast, but you can lag a little bit behind and you'll be good.

José Hernández: Exactly.

Kyle Davis: Let other people test it out, but move fast.

José Hernández: But move into it, right?

Kyle Davis: Move into. Yes.

Gail Davis: Well, I remember hearing another cool fact last night. You've run a number of marathons.

José Hernández: [00:26:00] Yes!

Gail Davis: Yes, how many have you done?

José Hernández: I have done 11 marathons, the same amount of ... 11 is a good number for me. That's the same amount of rejections and so, I want to run one this fall. As soon my knee allows me to, and I want to run that 12th one.

I'll tell you, every marathon I ran, I've qualified for the Boston marathon. I'm hoping I'll qualify on this one, and then actually do run the Boston ... cause I never did run the Boston marathon, even though I qualified. Now I do wanna do this. I'm [00:26:30] gonna look for a nice marathon this fall and qualify, and then come next April of next year. I'm gonna run it.

Gail Davis: That's awesome!

Kyle Davis: Maybe we could get you in the Dallas marathon or ...

José Hernández: There you go!

Kyle Davis: You come back out here.

José Hernández: There you go! Well ...

Kyle Davis: I know that this weekend we're gonna go to Austin. I'm gonna go run the Austin half. It should be exciting.

José Hernández: I've ran the Austin marathon.

Kyle Davis: Oh, yes? Cool.

José Hernández: Yes. I've done that one ... freezing weather. I remember the day, the year I ran, there was a bunch of car slipping on the roadways ...

Gail Davis: Oh, no!

José Hernández: ... because of the freezing.

Kyle Davis: It should [00:27:00] be exciting. Especially for me, since I've shelved training for the last 3 weeks and ...

José Hernández: Kyle, it's something that last week you suppose to take it easy, not the last three weeks.

Kyle Davis: Hey, man, you know you gotta let that body rest, and you gotta recoup, and my knees were hurting. But I'll finish it. If I have to march out of there, I'll finish it. But, yes.

José Hernández: I'll tell you, Super Bowl ... Sunday I had a talk in Puebla, so I landed in Mexico City. I had it on Monday, but [00:27:30] there's no way I was gonna travel on Sunday, because I was gonna miss the Super Bowl, so I traveled on Saturday. Sunday morning I get up, and I find a 10k race in Mexico City. And I ran it. And man, I was dogging it.

Gail Davis: How was that altitude?

José Hernández: That's right, exactly. I did say: "Why am I dogging it, why am I dogging it?" and then I remember, "Oh, yes. We were high up, why are we ...". I found that out after the first mile. I said: "This is why it's happening".

Kyle Davis: Mexico City, that's altitude right there.

José Hernández: Yes, that is altitude.

Kyle Davis: That's up there.

José Hernández: [00:28:00] Yes, that's pretty high.

Gail Davis: Well, I think this has been great. I know you even changed your flight home ...

José Hernández: Yes, I did.

Gail Davis: ... on Valentine's day, which I think you forgot when you did it. But thank you so much for stopping by, and I am so excited to share the story with more people, and more audiences.

José Hernández: Thank you very much.

Kyle Davis: Thanks again, Jose.

Now, if you all want to read the transcript for this podcast, you can go do gdapodcast.com. If you're interested in booking José Hernández for any of your events, you can go contact GDA speakers at 214-420-1999, [00:28:30] or you can go to gdaspeakers.com


Gail Davis: Thank you!

José Hernández: Thank you!

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ep. 16 - Jose Hernandez: Retired Astronaut, Business Man, & Author by GDA Podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.