Former Migrant Worker Journeys From Farm Fields to Space

Jose Hernandez' journey to space started in the farm fields of California. Today, he is one of seven astronauts who will be onboard the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station this week.

He also will be fulfilling a promise he made to his parents, who will be among the thousands watching the orbiter's night launch, now scheduled for Tuesday.

VIDEO: From the Fields to the Stars
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Hernandez now jokes about working in the fields in California alongside his Mexican migrant parents and older brothers and sister. It was back-breaking labor, picking cucumbers and tomatoes. His parents, Salvador and Julia Hernandez, only made it through the third grade and told their children if they wanted a better life, they needed an education.

Hernandez said his parents would have been happy if he had finished high school, but he took it further.

Hernandez Decided to Become an Astronaut in High School

"When I was a senior in high school, I made a personal promise to myself to become an astronaut," Hernandez said. "That was when I heard that Franklin Chang-Diaz was selected as an astronaut."

To Hernandez, Chang-Diaz was a barrier breaker.

"He knocked down the wall -- Hispanics can be astronauts now and everything I read about his background, he came from Costa Rica, from very humble beginnings, he struggled with the English language and despite all that he was able to become an astronaut," Hernandez said. "And that is what I told myself, 'If Franklin can do it, why can't I?'"

He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering, and went on to work at the Lawrence Livermore labs, where he became an expert in x-ray physics. Later, he helped with the disposal of Russian nuclear materials, and eventually he became an engineer at the Johnson Space Center, where he was selected as an astronaut in 2004 after repeated applications.

Hernandez Hopes His Mission Will Motivate Other Latino Students

Fuzzy black and white images of the Apollo missions were some of astronaut Hernandez's first memories of the space program.

"We had a black and white TV, one of those console sets with rabbit ears, and when my Dad wanted good reception to watch one of the moon walks, I had to go hang on to the rabbit ears," Hernandez said. "Here I was trying to get around this big console to see the astronauts walking around on the moon. Every 10-year-old kid at that time wanted to be an astronaut."

His astronaut status doesn't keep him from helping out at Tierra Luna Grill, the restaurant his wife, Adela, owns near the Johnson Space Center in Houston that features her mother's recipes. Jose pitches in to help and so do their five children. Oldest son Julio jokes about his father's passion for education, but he plans to follow in his father's footsteps.

Hernandez hopes his 13-day mission to the space station will motivate other Hispanic students.

"If they think that because they are in a financial situation where college is not in the works, that is not true," he said. "Where there is a will there is a way. And I will trade my story with theirs and hopefully they will say, 'Well Jose did it, and I can do it.'"

The countdown for Tuesday's launch is in its final hours, and when Hernandez suits up before the ride to the launch pad, he will give the thumbs-up to his family.

Even though he is the one who is going into space, Hernandez said, "My parents will actually be in a higher orbit."

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