The scene comes early in “A Million Miles Away,” the Amazon Studios movie that arrived on Prime Video this fall: Young José Hernández adjusts the TV antenna as his migrant farmworker family gathers to watch the launch of Apollo 17 in 1972.
It was at that moment that Hernández began dreaming of becoming a NASA astronaut.
Wait – literally?
“Absolutely,” he says, recalling his 10-year-old self. “The dream was conceived on that evening. Seeing that launch, every kid during that time wanted to be an astronaut, because it was all over the news. And I was just lucky that that desire, that burning feeling of, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this!’ never went away. I just kept driving toward that goal and driving toward that goal.”
Based on Hernández’s autobiography, “Reaching for the Stars: The Inspiring Story of a Migrant Farmworker Turned Astronaut,” the new biopic about Hernández’s extraordinary life shows us the beginnings of that dream, complete with imagery of the boy just outside his family’s Stockton home, holding an ear of corn as if it were an imaginary spaceship.
It’s a lovely piece of visual poetry and like many perfect things, too good to be true.
The reality, as Hernández describes it in a recent interview with director and co-writer Alejandra Márquez Abella, is more earthbound – though perfect for a 10-year-old boy in that era.
“Ale took creative liberty with the ear of corn,” Hernández says. “But my brother had a USS Enterprise model, and I would always get it from the closet, where he hid it.
“I would play with it, and I would get in so much trouble,” Hernández says of his attraction to the “Star Trek” toy. “He’d say, ‘You’re going to break the little antenna and point of it.’ But for practical purposes, it could have been an ear of corn.”
Now Hernández and Márquez Abella, the Mexican filmmaker, are talking about his life, the movie – which is streaming in more than 240 countries – and the importance of family and community in making this dream come true.
This image released by Prime shows Michael Pena in a scene from “A Million Miles Away.” (Prime via AP)
“A Million Miles Away” stars Michael Peña as the adult Hernández, Rosa Salazar as his wife Adela and Julio Cesar Cedillo and Veronica Falcón as his parents, Salvador and Julia.
The biopic charts Hernández’s path from the farm fields of Salinas, Stockton and Southern California to the stars. We meet the people who believed in him and helped him throughout his life – his second-grade teacher, his boss at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, his wife and extended family.
Throughout his young childhood, Hernández’s family followed the seasons, relocating every few months as grapes, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and cherries ripened in fields across California. It was his Stockton school teacher – Miss Young – who saw the potential in young Hernández and urged his parents to settle in one place so they could encourage the boy’s education.
He graduated from Stockton’s University of the Pacific with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and earned a master’s from UC Santa Barbara before joining Lawrence Livermore Labs. With the dream shining bright – and support from his boss – he pursued skills and experiences to help propel his goals. He worked on an X-ray laser for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and helped build the first digital mammography system. He got his pilot’s license and became SCUBA certified, two skills common among astronauts. And when his boss sent him to Russia on a project, he learned to speak the language – NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos have long worked closely together.
The movie shows us the frustrations – Hernández applied 11 times to NASA before he was accepted on the 12th try – and fears. Early in his career at NASA, Hernández saw friends and colleagues perish when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003.
And it shows the triumphs, too. Viewers witness Hernández make history as the nation’s first first-generation Mexican-American astronaut – he was born in French Camp, just south of Stockton in 1962 – and the first migrant farmworker to leave the fields for the celestial skies. He made it to space aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery – word is, he brought an Oakland Raiders flag with him – and flew to the International Space Station in 2009.
Now his journey is on millions of screens around the world.
“It’s kind of surreal. When I first started this whole journey of becoming an astronaut, I promise you, my goal was not to have a movie made about me,” Hernández says. “It was purely for selfish reasons. I wanted to go out in space. I wanted to be like astronaut Gene Cernan (on Apollo 17), the very last person to walk on the moon.
“As soon as I got selected, I noticed a lot of attention was given to me, because I was a former migrant farmworker that turned astronaut. It was a feel-good story. And I noticed I became an instant role model. I embraced it because I took it like a superpower. I said, ‘Hey, I can use this for good and inspire kids to reach their maximum potential. To dream big. After I left NASA, I started giving motivational talks and writing books. It’s after that that the studios came calling.”
For Márquez Abella, the story was irresistible. “It was impossible to escape, because it’s just such an amazing story,” she says. “I think the thing that captured me the most was the idea that it is not despite your origins that you become who you want to, it is because of them that you do.”
The role of family and community runs through the movie. It’s “completely central to the film,” Márquez Abella says. “I think that Hispanics have that sense of community in them. We are saying people should be more Latino, more Hispanic in that way. We should achieve things as a community and give thanks to those who help us achieve things. It’s all connected.”
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It’s a classic case of “It takes a village,” Hernández adds. “Don’t be afraid to share your dreams, your ambitions, your goals with the people that you’re around, because they’re the ones who are going to provide the most support for you to achieve this goal. It’s everything from my wife helping me at pivotal points (to) the fact that my parents decided to stay in one place, heed the advice of my second-grade teacher. That my boss, knowing he would lose me as one of his employees, appointed me to that Russian job because he wanted to help me.”
Today, Hernández’s feet may be back on the ground, but his eyes are still on the stars. The UC Regent is the president and CEO of Tierra Luna Engineering, an aerospace company. His Reaching for the Stars Foundation offers STEM-focused events, science workshops and youth scholarships. And he’s picking grapes once more – at his Lodi vineyard, where he and his father Salvador make Tierra Luna Cellars wines. Naturally, they are named for stars.