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One Man’s Journey From the Fields to the Stars

Astronaut José Hernández talks about seeing his life portrayed in ‘A Million Miles Away’

Video: This Migrant Farmworker Became a NASA Astronaut

A Million Miles Away, now streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the inspirational story of astronaut José M. Hernández (played by Michael Peña), who achieved a seemingly impossible dream — a dream that took him from working in the fields of California all the way to space.

The film depicts his humble beginnings as the son of Mexican migrant workers. From childhood, Hernández would travel with his family to help harvest crops in the San Joaquin Valley. From La Piedad, Michoacán, Mexico, they would go from one harvest to another, and Hernández hopped from one school to the next. In fact, he didn’t learn to speak English until he was 12.

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Hernández’s imagination took flight when he heard his family describing the migration of monarch butterflies from southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States to the mountains of Michoacán, their home state. In the film, monarch butterflies and their amazing journey across international borders serve as a metaphor for migrant farmworkers whose path follows the agricultural crop cycles.

“It’s like what my parents did, and what happens with a lot of immigrants who come to the U.S.; they do all they can so that the next generation has every opportunity to move forward,” Hernández says.

Despite the adversities, Hernández stayed focused on his goals and became an engineer and scientist specializing in nuclear nonproliferation. On Aug. 28, 2009, he fulfilled his dream of traveling to space as a flight engineer on the space shuttle Discovery. This made him part of a select group of Latin American astronauts who have participated in NASA missions.

But A Million Miles Away isn’t really about the shuttle flight or about space. “This film is very much about earth, and I mean literally on the ground,” said Alejandra Márquez Abella, the film’s director. “It starts with his hands harvesting food that people will put on their tables, and it ends up many miles away with him doing another type of work. But it’s about the work ethic he learned in the fields.”

spinner image astronaut josé hernández
On Aug. 28, 2009, José Hernández fulfilled his dream of traveling to space as a flight engineer aboard NASA’s space shuttle Discovery, on mission STS-128.
Courtesy of José Hernández

A Million Miles Away — based on Hernández’s autobiography, Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut — “is a film about how you can get what you want by embracing who you are,” says Márquez Abella.

In an exclusive interview with AARP, Hernández talks about how it feels to see his life portrayed in the film, and how his family and faith have been crucial to his success.

Do you remember when you first thought about becoming an astronaut?

Yes. I was watching Apollo 17, the last mission. I was 10 at the time, and I saw the last astronaut to walk on the moon. I was watching [on TV] and then would go outside and look at the moon, and then go back inside to listen to Walter Cronkite’s explanations. That was the moment that fueled my determination, and I said: “This is it. I want to be an astronaut.”

Your faith is very important to you. How do you reconcile your religious beliefs with scientific work?

When I’m asked how a scientist can be Catholic and religious, I reply that there is no conflict for me. Science tells you how things work, the laws of physics. Religion tells you why things happen.

Did spending time in space strengthen your beliefs? Did it make you feel closer to the secrets of the universe?

I had two windows: one with a gorgeous view of our planet, and another one to the universe. I looked at the universe, and it looked so perfectly laid out that I thought, “This can’t be a coincidence.” So there is in fact a force that we aren’t familiar with, and that’s religion. That’s God.

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spinner image josé hernández with his family when he was a child
José Hernández (right, in blue shirt) traveled with his family to help them harvest crops in California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Courtesy of José Hernández

The movie also talks about another very important force: family. You consider your family, along with your cultural heritage and traditions, as key to your success.

When I’ve needed help, someone has always been there to lend me a hand. God was taking care of me through my parents, and through Miss Young [Hernández’s elementary school teacher], who told my parents we should settle down in one place so I wouldn’t have to change schools so often. So, I like this film because it’s not someone saying, “Hey, look at me; look at how well I’ve done.” It’s a family effort because without my family I would have never made it.

But many people aren’t fortunate enough to have a family supporting them.

The important thing is to seek support and not try to conquer the world alone, [but rather] work as a team, share the dream, and get help at key moments.

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