Jose M. Hernandez grew up in a typical migrant farm-working family in the Central Valley, but it was the grainy black-and-white television images of a moon walk that changed his life.
When he was 9, he and his family watched a live broadcast of Apollo 17. “I remember being mesmerized,” he said Saturday as he recalled watching the lunar walk on TV, then walking outside to look at the moon.
“I remember telling myself 'That's what I want to be, I want to be an astronaut,' ” he said.
Hernandez, 50, would make that dream a reality, flying on the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2009 on a two-week mission to the International Space Station.
He was accepted into the astronaut training program on his 12th attempt.
Hernandez told his story of determination and perseverance to a packed audience at the Petaluma Museum, part of a 10-day Space Shuttle exhibit that ends today.
“I want to make sure kids are given the license to dream,” he said to an audience that included a 5-year-old boy in an orange astronaut suit, Dominic Briceño of Petaluma.
Hernandez, the twelfth Hispanic person to fly in space, said his success was made possible through education, the support of his parents and a key teacher.
“He's a role model to youth and an inspiration to so many today,” said Petaluma Mayor David Glass, who proclaimed Saturday “Jose Hernandez Day.”
“We celebrate human endeavor, human accomplishment,” Glass said. And in a nod to the two space shuttles that were lost — Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 — he added, “We're celebrating a man who has really put his life on the line.”
Hernandez told his story, complete with photos of his childhood in the Stockton area. He also signed copies of his book, “Reaching for the Stars.”
Before rocketing to space, he got his master's degree in electrical engineering, worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and helped develop a successful device for breast cancer screening.