From Fieldhand to Spaceman: An Astronaut's Journey
In the White Room on NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A, STS-128 Mission Specialist Jose Hernandez - a former migrant farmer from Stockton, Calif. - waits his turn to enter space shuttle Discovery during a launch rehearsal for his Aug. 25, 2009 launch.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

This story was updated at 12:24 p.m. EDT.

Astronaut Jose Hernandez has come a long way, and now he's about to go even farther.

Hernandez, a man who spent much of his childhood picking strawberries and cucumbers with his Mexican migrant farming family, is poised to make his first trip into space next week when NASA?s shuttle Discovery launches toward the International Space Station. Liftoff is set for 1:36 a.m. EDT (0536 GMT) on Tuesday.

"I come from a very humble family and what I would call a typical migrant farm working family," Hernandez said in a NASA interview. He described his upcoming flight as "the culmination of a dream, you know, in terms of what I?ve been working towards with the support of my family and my parents, and to me it?s something that?s going to be incredible."

It?s also a major event in Mexico, where his family hails from the state of Michoac?n. On Saturday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon called Hernandez to congratulate on his upcoming mission and invited him to dinner when he gets back to Earth, according to the Associated Press.

The Associated Press reported that Hernandez accepted Calderon?s invitation to dinner and a chat about space, and offered to serve as an advisor for a future Mexican space agency.

Hernandez and his six crewmates will launch from NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a 13-day mission to deliver new science gear, supplies and a new crewmember for the space station. They?ll also deliver a treadmill named after comedian Stephen Colbert. Three spacewalks are planned.

The beginning of the dream

For Hernandez, 47, the dream to reach space was planted at a young age even though he didn?t learn English until he was 12 years old. He remembers the exact moment, in fact, when he was a high school senior and heard the news that the first Hispanic-American had been chosen to travel into space.

"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. "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."

Hernandez was born in French Camp, Calif., to parents from the central Mexican city of La Piedad in Michoac?n. Every year he and his family would travel from Mexico to southern California in March, then northward to the Stockton area by November, working at farms along the route. They would return to Mexico for Christmas and then start the cycle all over again in the spring.

"It?s the only life I knew and it was typical," Hernandez said. "I think the only atypical portion of that whole story was the fact that my parents put a lot of emphasis in education in spite of them only having a third grade elementary school education. During the school year, Monday through Friday, they would put us in school, and there was a lot of families that would typically pull the kids out of school just so they could help with the household income."

Focus on education

Hernandez did well in school and went on to college, after which he worked as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and took a break to earn a Master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Hernandez began working as an engineer for NASA?s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where astronauts train, in 2001.

He applied for 12 straight years to become a NASA astronaut before finally being selected for the corps in 2004, and credited his parents' support and focus on education for helping him achieve his dream.

"It's a feel good story, but it's not a story to tell because, 'Hey, look at me, I?m an astronaut. Look how good I am,'" he said. "It?s more of a story to tell so that the folks that are listening and viewing this can say, 'Hey, if he was able to do it, why can?t I do it?' So that?s what I?m hoping to do is to empower especially the Latino community, the Latino students."

Hernandez is married to wife Adela, who runs a restaurant near the Johnson Space Center called Tierra Luna Grill, which is Spanish for Earth Moon Grill. They have five children: three daughters, ages 10, 12 and 13, and two sons, ages 6 and 15.

As part of his efforts to reach out to the public, especially young people, Hernandez recently began writing about his experiences training for the mission on the microblogging site Twitter. He posts updates in English and in Spanish under the name "@Astro_Jose."

"I hope to spread that excitement about space, science and engineering and inspire others to follow their dreams by sharing my activities and interacting with my followers on Twitter," Hernandez said.

He joins a growing crowd of astronauts who are posting to the site, including STS-127 commander Mark Polansky in July and Hubble Space Telescope repairman Mike Massimino, the first person to "tweet" from space.

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  • Image Gallery - Jose Hernandez?s Astronaut Class

SPACE.com will provide complete coverage of Discovery's STS-128 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik and Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.