Jose Hernandez, Migrant-Turned-Astronaut, Has Middle School Named for Him in San Jose

When he was a young boy, he worked alongside his family with other farmworkers in California, moving from one town to another.

When he was a grown man, Jose Hernandez became an astronaut.

On Tuesday, an east San Jose charter middle school dedicated a campus after Hernandez, as an example to the many Latino students who go there that a man with humble, migrant, Michoacan-root beginnings can literally reach the stars.

"Jose's story is a remarkable one," Alpha Public Schools CEO John Glover said Tuesday morning on the newly dedicated "Alpha: Jose Hernandez Middle School." "There are many kids who have the same humble beginnings and we want them to think big."

There are slightly more than a dozen Hispanic astronauts in U.S. history, including Hernandez's inspiration, Franklin Chang-Diaz, the country's first Hispanic-American astronaut.

Alpha Schools, a public charter school, now has 650 students enrolled in one elementary school and two middle schools. Glover said 90 percent are Latino, 8 percent are Vietnamese and 96 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Addressing the student body, Hernandez said: "I see so much of myself in you."

He added that even if you're poor and an immigrant, it "doesn't matter." Getting an education, he said, "will level the playing field." He told the students "don't give up," and revealed that he had been rejected by NASA 11 times before he was selected for a mission five years ago.

The first Alpha middle school was named for Blanca Alvarado, a Latina Santa Clara County supervisor. One of Alpha's founding board members, Cindy Avitia, knew Hernandez from Stockton and wanted to name a middle school after him. Avitia died last year, Glover said, and a new high school will be dedicated to her.

"She always said she wanted our kids to know who the people their schools were named for," Glover said.

Jose Hernandez Middle School is named for an astronaut who used to till the fields.

"I was hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field near Stockton and I heard on my transistor radio that Franklin Chang-Diaz had been selected for the Astronaut Corps," Hernandez said, noting that he was a senior in high school at the time. "That was the moment I said, 'I want to fly in space.' And that's something I've been striving for each day since then."

Hernandez, one of four children who didn't learn English until he was 12, ended up graduating from Franklin High School in Stockton with the aim of following in Chang-Diaz's footsteps. While he was in college, he got involved in the MESA program, which helps students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds in math, engineering and science.

The studies took. He earned a bachelor's in electrical engineering from the University of the Pacific in 1984, and a masters in electrical and engineering from UC Santa Barbara.

After graduation, Hernández worked from 1987 to 2001 1at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Along with a colleague, he helped develop the first full-field digital mammography imaging system.

And then he set his sights higher. He wanted more than what he had as a child. That's when his family moved from Mexico to southern California and then to Stockton, picking strawberries and cucumbers at farms along the route, returning to Mexico for Christmas, all to be repeated the next spring.

In 2001, Hernandez joined the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and was chosen by NASA - three years later as an astronaut candidate. He was actually reviewed by Chang-Diaz, who was a member of the review board.

"It was a strange place to find myself, being evaluated by the person who gave me the motivation to get there in the first place," Hernandez said on his foundation website. "But I found that we actually had common experiences -- a similar upbringing, the same language issues. That built up my confidence. Any barriers that existed, he had already hurdled them."

Hernandez trained and trained, and was eventually assigned to the Shuttle Branch to support launch and landing. He finally took off into orbit on the STS-128 in 2009. While in space, Hernandez made history again, this time to be the first person to tweet in Spanish in space.

Two years ago, Hernandez ran for Congress, but lost to incumbent Republican Jeff Denham to represent the 10th district of San Joaquin Valley.

After the ribbon-cutting at Alpha Public Schools on Cunningham Avenue, Hernandez was expected to sign his book, "Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut," at the Barnes & Noble at Eastridge Mall.

Hernandez formed a foundation by the same name in 2005, with the aim of giving students a chance regardless of "perceived obstacles."

NBC Bay Area's Bob Redell contributed to this report.

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