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 Brice? 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.
Now a motivational speaker, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year but said he is weighing whether to run again.
His talk depicting the culmination of his lifetime dream was supplemented with footage of the Space Shuttle blasting off, then of him and the crew floating weightlessly in space and going about their duties.
"You have the best seat in the house," he said of his view as flight engineer, seated slightly behind, but between the pilot and shuttle commander.
Hernandez described how the take-off begins "like the best ride Disneyland can ever give you."
Then the pressure builds and "feels like a small dog on your chest" as the shuttle accelerates. It becomes "a big, giant St. Bernard. You can't expand your chest; it's hard to breathe," he said of the sensation as the shuttle rockets to 17,500 mph in just 8? minutes and reaches orbit.
Before he could experience that adrenaline rush, Hernandez had his share of disappointment. Each time he was turned down for the astronaut program, he would learn more about the successful candidates.
One year, when he found out the candidates were all pilots, he decided to get a pilot's license. After he learned another crop of candidates were experienced scuba divers, he got training and multiple certifications for advanced diving.