What This Mexican-American Astronaut Realized About Borders While Up In Space

José M. Hernández was rejected by NASA 11 times before he fulfilled his dream.

José M. Hernández’s journey to space lasted over two decades. 

The son of Mexican migrant workers was rejected 11 times by NASA before becoming a part of the 19th class of astronauts in 2004. Hernández describes the obstacles and motivation that paved the road to his dream in a Now This video posted Friday.   

“I was 42 when I got selected,” he said in the video. “I started applying when I was 20.”

As a child, Hernández and his family would work in different farms across California. But the engineer said his parents always made school a priority.  

“They believed in education, so they always did put us through school Monday through Friday, but come Saturday and Sunday, and seven days a week during the summer, we were alongside them working in the fields,” he told Now This. “My dad’s policy was that if you can walk, you can pick.”

Hernández vividly recalled when he decided to go to space in a 2004 interview with NASA.  

“I was hoeing a row of sugar beets in a field near Stockton, California, and I heard on my transistor radio that Franklin Chang-Diaz had been selected for the Astronaut Corps,” he said of the moment, which occurred while he was a senior in high school. “I was already interested in science and engineering, but 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.”

Despite numerous obstacles, Hernández did eventually realize his dream of becoming an astronaut and went up to space as a flight engineer. While admiring Earth from space, the Mexican-American said he realized something important about the borders that divide countries and people.

“We were flying over North America and you can tell Canada, the United States and Mexico [are] there, but what struck me as something of beauty was that you couldn’t tell where Canada ended and the U.S. began, or where the U.S. ended and Mexico began,” he said. “I had to leave this world to come to the conclusion that borders are a human-made concept.”

In 2005, Hernández began helping others pursue their dreams in science, technology, engineering and math through his nonprofit organization Reaching for the Stars. Learn more about the engineer’s story in the video above.