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Review: Reaching for the Stars

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Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut
by José M. Hernández
Center Street, 2012
hardcover, 272 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-4555-2280-4

We are, as a society, enamored with success stories: tales of people who rise from obscurity and poverty to become rich and famous, or who otherwise find success in a challenging field. Certainly there is a feel-good aspect to such stories, but also, perhaps, a self-improvement angle: what can I learn from his or her success to achieve my own goals? While we typically find such success stories in fields like business or athletics, the astronaut corps has its share of people who overcame significant obstacles to become one of the small group of people who have flown in space. That includes former NASA astronaut José Hernández, who describes his realization of a childhood dream in Reaching for the Stars.

Finally, in 2004 he made it into the astronaut corps, and flew on the STS-128 shuttle mission in 2009. That boyhood dream of forty years earlier had finally been achieved.

Like perhaps millions of children, especially of a particular era, Hernández first dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a little boy, his interest fueled by watching the original Star Trek series on TV and the Apollo 11 landing. As the youngest of four children of migrant farmworkers, shuttling back and forth between the farm fields of central California and family in Mexico, becoming an astronaut seemed to be almost too fantastic a goal, and he says he largely kept it to himself. That goal, though, helped keep him focused on getting an education, later securing a job as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Even though he had achieved professional and personal success, including marriage and a family of five children, that original goal of becoming an astronaut still beckoned. That meant multiple applications to NASA, and multiple rejections, sometimes just missing the final cut. Finally, in 2004 he made it into the astronaut corps, and flew on the STS-128 shuttle mission in 2009. That boyhood dream of forty years earlier had finally been achieved.

Hernández’s tale is reminiscent to some degree to another recent astronaut memoir, Dream Walker, by Bernard Harris (see “Review: Dream Walker”, The Space Review, December 13, 2010). Both are minorities that were inspired, at least in part, by Apollo 11; both also kept that goal largely a secret from even close friends and family, not wanting to be discouraged. Hernandez describes the pursuit of his dream in relatively straightforward language, and he is not one to dish dirt on the inside workings of NASA’s astronaut corps or other organizations. The book is sprinkled with Spanish language terms, which at times do little but break the flow of his narrative; the fact that the orange pressure suit astronauts wear for launch is a traje naranjado, for example, doesn’t add much to the story.

Another similarity between Harris and Hernández is that both established educational outreach efforts to get students to study math and science. However, while Harris has devoted his post-astronaut career to that end, Hernández has another pursuit: politics. He describes how he left the astronaut corps after his one shuttle flight since the only flight opportunities going forward would be space station missions that would require years of training and six months in space, requiring a separation from his family he didn’t want to make. Instead, after a foray into business, he says he was approached by President Obama last September, who encouraged the former astronaut to pursue a career in politics. Hernández is now running for Congress back in central California, something he mentions very briefly at the very end of the book.

Reaching for the Stars can be considered, in some respects, a campaign biography, especially with its publication just two months before the November election. But if you ignore those final pages about his decision to run for Congress, though, it is also a tale of success, with Hernández, in the book’s epilogue, helpfully enumerating the steps he followed to turn his childhood dreams into reality—steps, he says, can be used by anyone to “harvest your own stars,” even if you’re not interested in being an astronaut.