NASA astronaut inspires OPS students, parents ahead of new school year

He vividly remembers the moment he knew he wanted to be up in space.
It's not every day you get to meet a NASA astronaut.
Published: Aug. 12, 2022 at 10:31 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - As back-to-school motivation, students and families in Omaha Public Schools had the rare chance to meet and hear from a NASA astronaut.

“First I started off as a staff engineer and I worked my way up to a branch chief of the materials and processes branch and from there I got picked up as a NASA astronaut 19th class in 2004,″ says Jose Hernandez, the former astronaut.

Hernandez, who grew up in a migrant farming family from Mexico, spent much of his childhood traveling across California and Mexico to follow the crops of each season.

He vividly remembers the moment he knew he wanted to be up in space.

“I was fortunate enough to watch the very last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, if you look in your history books that was December 1972,” he says. “You could image a 10-year-old kid holding on to rabbit ear antennas to improve reception, that was me watching astronaut Gene Cernan walk on the moon.”

“I would go outside and it was a cold December night and I would see the moon up there, almost full, come back inside, listen to the reporter, still remember his name, Walter Cronkite narrate that moonwalk and man I was hooked. I said you know I want to be like that gentlemen there, I want to be an astronaut, and one of these days I wanna be out in space just like he is.”

Friday evening, Hernandez shared that story, what he calls his American dream with OPS families.

“I’m just glad that my kids have the opportunity to see an actual Mexican who made something out of himself who had many attempts and failed at many attempts but kept trying and accomplished what he wanted,” says Gina Ciganek, an OPS grandparent who says when she was growing up in the 1970s, there wasn’t as much representation for Mexican-Americans.

“I want to show my kids that being Mexican, they can still do astonishing things,” says parent Nicholas Lopez.

But Hernandez’s story wasn’t just aimed at students. He says his main message is for parents. Without his, he says he wouldn’t be where he is today.

“In terms of how important it is for p[parents to participate in the educational process of there kids and that accountability and expectations from parents to the kids is very important,” he says. “As a 10-year-old when your parents tell you, ‘hey you can do this,’ they literally empower you to believe in yourself.”

Hernandez says he remembers telling his parents about his dream to be an astronaut when he was 10, and their response changed his life.

He recalls his dad giving him a five-ingredient recipe.

“He said define your goal in life, your purpose in life, and then he says recognize how far you are from that goal, then he said draw yourself a roadmap, so you know how to get there, from where you know you’re at to where you want to go, you have to know the way. Fourth, he says, back it up with the right training and education, he says ‘you got to go to college for this.’”

“And then fifth and final, he pointed at the kitchen table and said you know the effort you put out picking fruits and vegetables Saturdays and Sundays, and seven days a week during the summer, he pointed at my books on the table and said you put that effort there.”

Throughout his journey to get to space, Hernandez added one more ingredient to that recipe: perseverance.

“I did not get selected the first time I applied to NASA, I got rejected not once, not twice, but 11 times, it wasn’t until the 12th time that I finally got invited to be part of the 19th class of astronauts in 2004.”

Hernandez says he shares that recipe with young students, and the story with their parents to show how impactful the combination can be.

Sharing the story of who and what led him to his American dream, he says, is an honor.

“You see the effect of empowerment, you see the effect of being a role model and you see the fact that you could make a difference.”

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