Flying on the Space Shuttle

Flying on the Space Shuttle
José Hernández, astronaut.
Photograph by Jack Thompson

NAME: José Hernández | AGE: 47 | HOME: Houston | QUALIFICATIONS: Joined the Johnson Space Center as an engineer in 2001 and was selected by NASA for astronaut training in 2004 / Served in 2009 as the flight engineer for STS-128 Discovery, whose crew transferred cargo to and from the International Space Station and attached the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module / Became the first person in space with a bilingual Twitter account, Astro_Jose

• Growing up, I worked in the fields of California with my family. We picked cucumbers, cherries, tomatoes, peaches, everything. I knew that to get out of the fields, I needed to go to school. English was my second language, so I migrated naturally to math and science.

• We’d watch the Apollo program’s lunar walks on our old TV. It was my job to hold the rabbit-ear antenna in place, so I’d watch from up close. Seeing the moon, the astronauts hopping in slow motion, the Earth as that little blue marble, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

• I studied electrical and computer engineering and got a job at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California. I worked on a number of projects: an X-ray laser, the first full-field digital mammography imaging system, and in nuclear nonproliferation. But I always managed my career so that I’d be attractive to NASA. I even got my pilot’s license and learned how to scuba dive. After twelve years of applying to the astronaut program, I finally got selected.

• As flight engineer, you give the commander and the pilot all the information they need in the event of a malfunction. It’s sort of like being the quarterback.

• Three of my colleagues did space walks.I was the one who suited them up.

• In space, when you push water through a straw, it comes out as a circular blob. So we got an M&M, pushed it toward a blob of water, and watched as the water trapped it. Then of course we had to eat it.

• I have nearly 140,000 followers on Twitter. The number grows by about a thousand every few days.

• We landed at Edwards Air Force Base, in California. I have a friend who owns a restaurant nearby, called Domingo’s, and within four hours, the whole crew was eating there. I had steak ranchero.

NASA has only three more shuttle missions left, so I know I won’t be going back on a shuttle flight. The only game in town now is long-duration flights to the International Space Station. I’ll keep training and wait until my number gets called for that.

• It’s great that the government is encouraging private investment in space travel. Anytime people are willing to spend their own money, it can only help mature the technologies that will one day enable us to explore planets like Mars.

• Seeing the Earth from space is awe-inspiring. I found myself looking down at the San Joaquin Valley and thinking, “That’s where I was, picking crops, and look at me now.”

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