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Landmark mission

By Abbe Miller & John Loos

December 2009- As NASA begins looking to the future of space exploration and aerospace manufacturing with its new Orion vehicle, set to launch in 2015, barriers are continuing to be broken even as its shuttle program winds down.

On Aug. 28, the space shuttle Discovery launched into orbit, taking the STS-128 mission crew to the International Space Station. With John "Danny" Olivas and Jose M. Hernandez onboard, the STS-128 mission marked the first time two Hispanic astronauts were part of the same crew.

For both men, the journey into space was a much longer experience than the 8.5 minutes it takes a shuttle to go from launchpad to orbit.

"I was about 7 years old when I saw man walking on the moon, and of course during that time, that was a big event because it was televised," says Hernandez. "We had this black-and-white TV with rabbit-ear antennae and a very snowy picture, but nonetheless I vividly remember the images of the astronauts basically bunny hopping on the moon because of the [zero] gravity. I'm sure every kid at that age wanted to be an astronaut, but fortunately the desire never went away for me. And so that's what I strived for ever since then, since I was 7 years old."

Born in French Camp, Calif., Hernandez was the son of migrant farmworkers who split their time between the fields of California and their home in Mexico. His parents came from La Piedad, Michoacan, and had indigenous Purepecha roots. Because of his family's seasonal migrancy, Hernandez didn't learn to speak English until he was 12. And although they only had a third-grade education, his parents encouraged Hernandez to take school seriously.

"I think the fact my parents were big proponents of education allowed us to dream big," he says. "And when you couple that with getting a good education, defining your goals and having a good worth ethic ... then you come up with a great recipe for success. What I'm hoping the Latino population takes away from this story is that they say, 'Hey, in spite of the obstacles, he was able to make it.'"

Like Hernandez, Olivas was also born in California and is of Mexican descent. He was raised in El Paso, Texas, and attended the University of Texas at El Paso, receiving a mechanical engineering degree. According to Olivas' official NASA pre-flight interview for the STS-128 mission, he also became interested in space travel at a young age, after his family took a vacation to Johnson Space Center in Houston.

A Latin American legacy
Although there have been multiple astronauts with Hispanic roots to experience outer space, few have been natives of Latin America countries. The first Latin American in space--and the first black person--was Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez, a Cuban cosmonaut who flew aboard the Soviet vessel Soyuz 38 on Sept. 18, 1980.

The first and only Mexican native to fly into space was Rodolfo Neri Vela, who was part of the STS-61-B crew, which launched Nov. 26, 1985. He was followed closely by the first Hispanic American in space, Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz, a Costa Rican-born astronaut who flew seven missions into space, starting with the STS-61-C on Jan. 12, 1986.

"I was a senior in high school when I read the big news that the first Latino-American astronaut [Chang-Diaz] was selected by NASA," says Hernandez. "Upon reading about it, I saw lots of similarities between us. He came to the U.S. for an education, struggled with the English language and came from a very humble beginning, yet he was able to go to MIT and graduate and become an astronaut. And that's what empowered me, and what I'm hoping my story does is empower the Latino population, especially the kids, that if I was able to do it, then they can, too."

Several South American countries, including Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia, have active space programs, but few have astronauts or full launch capabilities. Mexico, however, is in the process of establishing the Mexican Space Agency, which is waiting for a confirmation vote by the Chamber of Deputies and a proclamation by President Felipe Calderon. The agency would resume the research and development seen under the National Comission for Outer Space, which was shuttered in 1977. FFJ

Check back soon for part two of FFJournal's discussion with Jose M. Hernandez, where he discusses the benefits a space program has on a country's manufacturing sector.

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