My heroes were athletes, cowboys and saints…weird combination, I know. Growing up in the ‘50s didn’t give a young lad a lot of hero options. The nuns expounded the virtues of being boiled in oil or eaten by lions as the ultimate sacrifice for one’s faith. It didn’t take but a few years for me to figure out I wouldn’t be taking that route through life. No sainthood for me.
Playing with cap guns and arguing who would be Gene Autry and who would be the “injuns” soon grew old.
But the sports icons of the ‘50s never grew old. Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Bob Cousy and Jim Brown kept my buddies and me constantly jabbering about our heroes’ feats and stats. Of the above names, only Jackie Robinson would be my pick as a role model. But he wasn’t. I was not motivated to be a major league ball player or break any barriers not available to me.
My dad was my role model. This was a good thing because my father’s words and actions were a framework of honesty, humility, moral courage and plain decency. Yet, during my youth, I never met a person who motivated me to overcome any and all obstacles to obtain a goal or career that seemed impossible. My motivation and goal-setting happened in my adult life, like it does for most people.
How wonderful for a few youngsters to “see” possibilities far beyond their reach and to plan their life’s path to make the impossible a reality.
I was moved by the incredible story of former astronaut, Jose Hernandez. He visited Bako last week to speak to students at the Science Fair. From all indications his story has inspired countless others to reach for the stars.
I imagined Jose, at nine years old, knowing no English, helping his family in the Central Valley fields after school, every weekend and all though the long hot summers. It was Jose’s to stand next to the small black and white television and adjust and hold onto the rabbit ear antennas to improve the reception of important events.
That year, 1972, the Apollo 17 mission was capturing the family’s attention. Little nine-year old Jose, while holding onto the rabbit ears watched Eugene Cernan walk on the moon. Jose felt as if he absorbed the power of that space walk through osmosis. That night, before bedtime, Jose told his father he wanted to travel in space, too.
His father, Salvador, didn’t laugh at Jose or dismiss the idea. He asked Jose to sit down at the kitchen table for a talk. Jose was scared because that table was used many times for family discipline. Yet, this man, with only a third grade education,delivered the most incredible father-son talk ever delivered.
Salvador told Jose he could achieve his dream but he must to five things. First he had to identify his life’s goal. Jose said, “I know it, I want to be an astronaut.” His father continued with the second thing; Jose must recognize how far from that goal is he right now. Jose said, “I’m pretty far away, I’m the son of a farmworker.” His father smiled at him and told him that was good that he recognized that fact. He continued with the third ingredient; Jose must draw a road map so he would understand where he was now and where and how to get where Jose wanted to go. Salvador warned Jose about this step by telling him to not take any short cuts to get to his goal quicker or he would be unprepared. Then he told Jose the fourth step; Jose must get an education. And lastly, number five, he must use the same work ethic that he uses in the fields during the hot summers on his books and when he graduates from college he must still use that same work ethic on his job. Salvador told Jose that all of those things would give him a shot at his goal.
By age 12, Jose learned to speak English and excelled in school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of the Pacific and a master’s in electrical and computer engineering from UC Santa Barbara. Jose was hired by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1987 to 2001, yet he never gave up his boyhood dream.
For eleven years in a row, Jose applied to the NASA astronaut program and received 11 rejection letters in a row. Each year he studied his competition and learned why they were selected. Many accepted entrants were pilots and some could scuba dive. Jose learned how to fly and how to scuba dive. When Jose read about the USA announcing a cooperative Space Station program with Russia, he asked his employer to assign him a position that made frequent trips to Russia and Jose learned to speak Russian.
On Jose’s 12th application, NASA accepted him. He joined the program in 2004.
Jose Hernandez flew NASA’s 126th shuttle mission as flight engineer with the Dicovery crew in 2009. He orbited the earth 217 times as they delivered 18,000 pounds of supplies to the Space Station. Jose Hernandez is now an aerospace consultant.
Jose told the students he would add one final ingredient to the five important steps his father had told him. The sixth step would be PERSERVERANCE.