Mission Specialist José Hernández
NASA's Mission Specialist José Hernández Wikimedia Commons/NASA

"Who better to lead this planet and dive into the unknown than a migrant farmworker?" The sentence captures the premise of "A Million Miles Away," a recently-released movie about former Latino NASA astronaut José M. Hernández that streams in Prime Video.

The film follows the story of Hernandez —played by Mexican-American actor Michael Peña — and his journey from being a farmworker with his family to becoming one of NASA's few Latino astronauts.

The movie delves into the struggles that Hernández faced throughout his journey, which included eleven rejections by NASA before being admitted to the space program in 2004. The Latin Times spoke with Hernández about his life, his involvement with the movie and his father's five-step recipe for success.

"After the sixth time I was ready to stop but my wife's words really stuck with me, when she walked away and said 'I don't know what they [the chosen astronauts] have that you don't,'" said. Hernández.

Writers Alejandra Marquez, Hernán Jiménez, and Bettina Gilois worked alongside Hernández to take his story to the screen. "It's hard to put a lifetime in a two hour film, Hollywood does take some liberties but in my particular case, I worked very closely with the three writers. Every script – I was given an opportunity to comment on it, I was at the shooting and even had a cameo," he said.

Hernández was able to include key people in his life to the film, such as Beto – who was a character based on the "combination of three childhood friends" who died to drug overdose and suicide — and his mentor, Kalpana Chawla, who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle Mission –.

There were key parts of Hernández life, however, that didn't make it into the film: "The one portion of my career they did not highlight, which is a third of my career at Lawrence Livermore Lab, I think that's the most important third of my career including being an astronaut, was being one of three folks that invented the first full field digital mammography system for earlier detection of breast cancer."

For 2023's Hispanic Heritage Month, NASA compiled a list of all Hispanic astronauts who have flown in space. The list is comprised of 15 people, the first one being Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, who in 1980 spent "eight days aboard the Salyut-6 space station in September 1980 as part of the Soviet Union's Interkosmos program to fly cosmonauts from friendly socialist countries."

"The first Hispanic to fly on the space shuttle, Payload Specialist Rodolfo Neri Vela of Mexico, also introduced tortillas to astronauts' on board menus during his flight on STS-61B in November 1985. Tortillas continue to be a staple on the space station today, for everything from breakfast tacos, to burgers, sandwiches, and pizzas," adds the document.

About Hernández, the NASA recalls that he made his visit to space during the STS-128 mission. "Hernández operated both the shuttle and station robotic arms to move the Leonardo MPLM back and forth and translate astronauts during the mission's three spacewalks. He participated in the transfer and installation of the three systems racks and the three research racks aboard the orbiting laboratory," it adds.

According to Zippia, "17% of NASA - National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees are Hispanic or Latino."

Asked what advice he'd give to aspiring astronauts, Hernández said: "Follow my father's five ingredient recipe: determine your purpose in life, recognize how far you are, draw yourself a road map, prepare yourself according to the challenge and develop a work ethic second to none. Add perseverance to it and then look at what astronauts have accomplished professionally to get selected and make you emulate that."

Hernández made sure to always stay in touch with his Mexican roots and his life before NASA. "I'm coming full circle. There's a saying you can take the kid out of a farm but not the farm out of a kid. I'm coming full circle in a sense that I still pick grapes but they're my grapes, I have a vineyard. I also have my own label of wines, it's called 'Tierra Luna Cellars.'"

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