'A Million Miles Away' director and astronaut José Hernández reveal cameo in new film from Amazon

a man in a white suit smiles and laughs while talking to a man in an orange space suit who is preparing to board a space shuttle
Former NASA astronaut José Hernández (at left) has a cameo as a space shuttle closeout crew member opposite actor Michael Peña, who plays Hernández in "A Million Miles Away." (Image credit: Amazon)

José Hernández is humbled, but also loves "A Million Miles Away."

The new film from director Alejandra Márquez Abella stars Michael Peña as Hernández and is based on the former NASA astronaut's life story. Hernández is the first person to go from being a migrant farmworker to flying in space.

"A Million Miles Away" opened in limited theaters on Sept. 8 and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

"Once I saw the finished product, I said, 'This is a good tool to motivate and empower a lot of people to believe in themselves.' Because that's what the movie does," said Hernandez in an interview with collectSPACE.com. "That's what Alejandra did so superbly when she made and directed this film."

"So I'm tickled that we have this film out now, because it's a really good way to motivate folks," he said.

Related: Watch the inspiring true story of NASA astronaut José Hernández in 'A Million Miles Away' on Amazon Prime (video)

"A Million Miles Away" follows Hernández and his family through his boyhood to becoming an engineer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory while also applying and being rejected eleven times to become an astronaut. The majority of the movie is focused on Hernández' life before he reported to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, but his training and STS-128 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery also feature in the film. ("A Million Miles Away" omits that Hernández first came to NASA as an engineer three years before he was named a member of the 19th class of astronaut candidates in 2004.)

"A Million Miles Away" director Alejandra Márquez Abella and the film's focus, former astronaut José Hernández spoke about making the film in an interview with collectSPACE.com. (Image credit: collectSPACE.com)

collectSPACE spoke with Hernández and Abella before a screening of "A Million Miles Away" at Space Center Houston. The two had earlier toured Johnson Space Center, a location that factors in the film but never actually appears.

collectSPACE (cS): I read that NASA provided the film with technical expertise, archival footage and clearances for the set designs, props and costumes. Were any of the scenes filmed at NASA? Some locations were clearly recreations, but others, like the Astrovan at Kennedy Space Center, looked convincing.

Alejandra Márquez Abella: Wow, that's a nice thing to hear. No, everything was shot in Mexico. NASA was shot in Querétaro and San Luis Potosí. So I am happy that you got confused.

cS: Like any film based on true story, there are some liberties taken with what "A Million Miles" depicts and what actually transpired. José, was there anything you would have liked changed?

José Hernández: From that perspective, no. Maybe there are things left out that I thought should have been included, but I understand Alejandra's plight in telling a full life story in two hours. Not everything can be there.

So sometimes I said, "Oh, we should have had that in there." For the most part, I think it was great and she did a superb job.

cS: Alejandra, on the flip side, was there anything too unbelievable about José's story that you felt could not be in the film because it would never be believed?

Abella: The whole thing! You know, a migrant farmworker astronaut, that's an impossible sentence. It was a challenge to tell that story in a way that was believable and profound. But I think it's there and I'm super happy.

cS: José, "A Million Miles Away" is not only about you, you appear in it as well. Can you tell me about how your cameo came about? Was it yours or Alejandra's idea to have you as appear as a closeout crew member helping Michael Peña (portraying you) get into the space shuttle on the launch pad?

Abella: I wanted to have José in the film and that was the best choice as he was doing that back then.

Hernández: That's right. I was a "Cape Crusader," so I did that job for seven launches. But hey, you can just call me Stan Lee. (laughs)

STS-128 mission specialist José Hernández awaits boarding space shuttle Discovery for his launch in August 2009. (Image credit: NASA)

cS: Speaking of cameos, Salma Hayek also appears in "A Million Miles Away," but as the subject of a gag pulled on you (Peña) by Discovery's other crew members. Was that made up for the film or was the "fake signed" photo something that you received for real, José? And does Salma Hayek know about it or will she possibly now because it is in the film?

Abella: I'm waiting for her call.

Hernández: I don't think we asked permission, did we?

Abella: We always have permission. (laughs)

Hernández: But yeah, that was totally real. That whole joke and the picture and my wife finding it, that was real. Believe me I heard an earful afterwards.

cS: Do you still have that picture?

Hernández: I do not. I wish I had kept it but I do not.

cS: One of the other things that was real in the film was Adela's restaurant Tierra Luna. The real restaurant is sadly long closed but did your wife cook for the cast and crew?

Hernández: She did not, however, Alejandra did come over to our house and she did have an opportunity to eat dinner with us.

cS: Michael Peña has played an astronaut before, notably in "The Martian." Was there any kind of direction you needed to give him with regards to the differences between playing a fictional astronaut and a real NASA crew member?

Abella: No. I mean, we came to NASA together about a year ago and he had training as if it was the first time. So, no.

I think this film is more about Earth than it is about space, so I think that changed everything.

Alejandra Márquez Abella directs actor Michael Peña, who portrays José Hernández in "A Million Miles Away." (Image credit: Amazon Studios)

cS: Lastly, José, you have been to space and you achieved that dream. You have had your autobiography published and you have now seen it adapted for the big screen. What's next?

Hernández: Well, you know, you could take a kid out of the farm, but not the farm out of the kid. So I'm back home. I give motivational talks and I'm writing a fourth book. But I also have my vineyard that I run with my father who helps me a lot. That's been the best six years so far that I've spent with my father, jointly operating the vineyard.

Now I'm making my online wines under the Tierra Luna Cellars label and that's what is next. The goal is to have my wine at every supermarket and liquor store in America. Right now, it is direct to consumer, but we want to go that next level of growth and be able to distribute it everywhere.

"A Million Miles Away" from Amazon Studios is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

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.