Wednesday, April 17, 2024
  Science and Technology, Community, Around Campus

By Amanda Alaniz

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – APRIL 17, 2024 – Long lines of patrons curved around the UTRGV Performing Arts Center (PAC) on the Edinburg Campus on Tuesday, April 16, to get the chance to listen to author, business owner, motivational speaker and former NASA astronaut José Hernández.

Hernández kicked off this year’s UTRGV Distinguished Speakers Series.

“He’s my idol,” John Perez, a fourth grader from Donna, said while he and his mother stood in line. “He reminds me to never give up because I know he tried 12 times, and the last time he did it – he actually made it to be an astronaut.”

student waiting to see dss event
John Perez, a fourth grader from Donna, waited outside for his chance to enter the PAC to hear his hero's talk. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)
His mother, Eulalia Perez, and her son had the chance to meet with Hernández while they were waiting, and received a signed patch. John’s homemade shirt reflected his inspiration: “Jose Hernández, I will follow your steps.”

More a thousand people – including UTRGV students, faculty and community members – filled the PAC, to hear Hernández speak about his accomplishments, his STS-128 Discovery mission, all the challenges he faced and how it took 12 times to get accepted by NASA. 

“I am providing an avenue of empowerment,” Hernández said. “I’m not here to tell people how great I am. I’m here to share my story, to say, you’re no different than I am. I was able to do it, this is how I did it.”

Hernández grew up in Stockton, California; his family is originally from Mexico. There, he worked alongside his family as a migrant farmworker, harvesting crops throughout California.

He recalled the moment he wanted to be an astronaut – when he watched the Apollo 17 mission on television in 1972. He said he remembered having a sit-down with his family at the kitchen table, to tell them about his goals. His father told him he could accomplish it, as long as he stayed committed and ready to “écharle ganas.”

“I look at how an Anglo astronaut on a black and white television motivated me to become an astronaut. Imagine if I’m out in communities, where kids can take a picture with me, and they see I look like them, I speak like them, I probably come from similar backgrounds,” he said. “It’s going to be an empowerment. ‘He was able to do it – why can’t I?’”

community members attend dss event
Audience members at the UTRGV Distinguished Speaker Series with Jose Hernandez, astronaut and book author, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024 at the Performing Arts Complex in Edinburg. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)
Throughout the hour-long talk, he covered details about the trainings he did to prepare for his mission as a flight engineer, about his family and his children’s endeavors, and gave his own personal “recipe for successes.” He told the crowd no one should be afraid to invest in themselves to better themselves. 

His story already has been made into a Hollywood movie, “A Million Miles Away,” starring Michael Peña, available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Eulalia Perez said she and her son watched the movie and enjoyed it.

“I hope John sees all the good things and bad things he can find in life, so he can still accomplish all the things he wants,” she said. “He wants to be an astronaut.”   

Another mother, Ivonne Rios, brought her three children to the DSS event, also viewing the former astronaut’s story as inspirational.

“His background as a migrant worker, working as a family, the love they have and supporting each other – that’s what I’m teaching my kids,” she said.

Hernández said that, as he does these motivational talks, he hopes people do take away inspiration and see him as an example of what they can achieve.

“I’m not superhuman. I’m just a hard worker, and that has made me successful. It was the work ethic my parents instilled in me,” he said. 

dss event at utrgv
More a thousand people – including UTRGV students, faculty and community members – filled the PAC, to hear Hernández speak about his accomplishments, his STS-128 Discovery mission, all the challenges he faced and how it took 12 times to get accepted by NASA. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)
Hernández currently owns a successful aerospace consulting business called Tierra Luna Engineering. He is finishing up writing a fourth book. And, he owns a vineyard in California and began bottling wine under the label Tierra Luna Cellars. 

“There’s a saying: You can take the kid out of the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the kid. I still pick grapes and I still drive a tractor,” he said. “But you know what? They’re my grapes and it’s my tractor.”


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.