California voters on Tuesday (Nov. 6) scrubbed the congressional launch of former astronaut Jose Hernandez, who had been seeking a new mission in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Hernandez, who would have been the sixth U.S. astronaut in history to be elected to Congress, was passed over by voters in California's 10th District, who elected Republican freshman incumbent Jeff Denham, an almond farmer and Air Force veteran, instead.
Hernandez received 46.2 percent of the votes.
Hernandez, a Democrat, grew up working with his Mexican immigrant family as a migrant farm worker. He did not learn to speak English until he was 12, but excelled in school after his family settled in Stockton, Calif. [Video: Hernandez Talks Election With SPACE.com]
Selected as an astronaut in 2004, Hernandez flew aboard space shuttle Discovery as a mission specialist. Between Aug. 28 and Sept. 11, 2009, Hernandez, together with six other astronauts, delivered needed supplies and science equipment to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the STS-128 mission.
The first to send bilingual English and Spanish messages from space on Twitter, Hernandez made headlines soon after his return to Earth as a result of comments he made on Mexican television advocating that the United States legalize undocumented immigrants.
He resigned from NASA in January 2011 as NASA began to retire its space shuttle program, turning his attention to the economic plight of his hometown region in California's Central Valley. The recession left many houses foreclosed and the area's unemployment rate was twice the national average, he said.
"And yet our folks in Congress were not doing a single thing to provide relief to our community," Hernandez told SPACE.com during an interview in September, adding that when people started suggesting that he run for office, he decided to "throw my hat in the ring."
Launching his campaign with a logo that looked like a space mission patch, Hernandez's attempt to list "astronaut" as his profession on the ballot was soon challenged. Republicans in California argued that he should not be allowed to list his job as "astronaut/scientist/engineer" on the ballot, but in March California Judge Lloyd Connelly ruled "astronaut" was Hernandez' rightful designation.
In his ruling, Connelly said Hernandez is an astronaut for "more than the time spent riding a rocket."
Hernandez told SPACE.com that his priorities would have focused on the challenges facing his constituency, but he'd have always been an advocate for NASA and the future of space exploration.
"You can't get a bigger cheerleader in Congress than a former NASA astronaut who's flown on the shuttle," said Hernandez. "You can bet your mortgage that I'm going to be fighting for NASA, fighting for investment in science and technology, and fighting for investment in education, because those are the things that are going to move our country ahead in the future."
Sixth from space
Had he won, Hernandez would have been the sixth person to fly into space to be elected to Congress and the third to the House of Representatives.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, was the first to hold office in the legislative arm of the U.S. federal government. A Democrat, he was elected by Ohio voters to the Senate in 1974 and held office for 25 years.
Apollo astronauts Jack Swigert and Harrison Schmitt, both Republicans, were elected to Congress. Schmitt, who became the first and only geologist to walk on the moon when he flew on the Apollo 17 mission 40 years ago, represented New Mexico for one term from 1977 to 1983. Swigert, who flew on the "successful failure" Apollo 13, won his bid to represent Colorado's 6th District in 1982 but died of cancer before he could be sworn into office.
Jake Garn and Bill Nelson were both sitting members of Congress when they were launched into orbit. Chosen as "congressional observers," Garn, representing the Senate, and Nelson, the House, flew on two shuttle missions in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Garn served for Utah as a Republican from 1974 to 1993. Nelson, a Democrat, held the seat for Florida's 11th District from 1983 to 1991.
On Tuesday (Nov. 6), Nelson was reelected to the Senate, retaining the office he has held for Florida since 2001.
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Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.