2024 General Meeting Keynote Address

Reaching New Heights: Jose Hernandez

The following remarks were delivered during the Opening Session of the 92nd General Meeting on May 13, 2024. It has been edited for content and phrasing.

INTRODUCTION: Since watching the last Apollo mission on his family’s black and white TV as a 10-year-old, José Hernández dreamed of traveling in space, a goal he achieved on a space shuttle mission in 2009. The 2023 biopic “A Million Miles Away” documents his journey from being a farm worker in California to becoming an astronaut.

Before joining NASA, Hernández worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1990-2001, where he worked on the development of a space-deployed X-ray laser as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative and co-developed the first full-field digital mammography system.

Hernández currently works at his California vineyard Tierra Luna Cellars and as CEO of Tierra Luna Engineering.

His slide presentation can be found here.

MR. HERNANDEZ: I'm very happy to be here because I feel like I'm among my colleagues – fellow engineers. And I’m also very happy to share my story.

I want to talk a little bit about my life story because I think, if anything, I'm hoping to leave you inspired and also give you some tools. Anyone can tell a story and leave you inspired. But as a speaker, I should also give you some tools that you can take back with you so you can say, if I put this into practice, perhaps I can achieve whatever goals I have in front of me quicker or perhaps I can even kick it up a notch and aspire to bigger goals after listening to José Hernández.

I'm hoping that’s what occurs here today. And what I'd like to do is I'd like to tell my story in kind of like an anecdotal fashion where you'll be able to pick up, as I tell the stories, the various nuggets of information that you can use. I don't care if you're an engineer, a manager, a parent, or a student, there's a message here for you. And I think it will be pretty clear as we move along.

The best way is to talk about how everything began. And my story began well before I was even born. It started when my father was 15 years old.

My father comes from a small town in the middle of Mexico. At the age of 15, out of economic necessity, he established what many people from his hometown do, which is migrate to California and work in the only thing he knows how to work in: agriculture. He quickly established a nine-month trajectory, spending two months in southern California, two months in central California, and five months in northern California before heading back home for three months. He did this year after year.

While in his hometown and at the age of 18, he meets my future mother. I guess they saw stars or something, and they fell in love. They get married, and my dad brings my mom along on this nomadic lifestyle. And, of course, with the marriage came kids. There are four of us, and I’m the youngest. You can see in the top picture I'm the one with the hat. The next oldest is my Irish twin brother. He's 11 months older than me. He's on the other side in the brown shirt. And then it's my sister in the middle. My oldest brother is not pictured because he took the picture. But you can see my oldest brother in the bottom picture. He's the one with the white T-shirt. I'm holding the tomato. And that's my grandpa after we were working in the tomato field.

What country we were born in depended on what month we were born. I had a nine in 12 chance of being born in the US in California. And a three in 12 chance of being born in Mexico. Well, I was a harvest baby. I was born in August, last stop in California. My Irish twin brother was born in September. He, too, was born in California. But then my sister and my oldest brother were born in the winter. They were born in Mexico.

I tell my oldest brother, who was born in Mexico, I say, "Hey, do you know I can run for President of the United States? And you can't." His response was, "Dude, you still got about 20, 25 years more to go, because they're only electing people over 80." So I still have a chance, right? Anyway, I digress.

When I reach school age, I go to my first kindergarten class in southern California in the Ontario/Chino area, our first stop, where we work in the strawberry fields.

There, I got to know my first kindergarten teacher and my first set of friends. And just as I learn where the bathroom is, two months come and go, and we're off to Salinas in central California. I got my second kindergarten teacher and second set of friends. Just as I learn where that bathroom is, it's time to go to Stockton. Now, I'm up to my third kindergarten teacher and third set of friends. We're there for five months but guess what? We're also going to Mexico and will be gone for three months from school, so we take three months of homework.

Every morning Monday through Friday, while we were in Mexico, my mom would wake us up and take us to grandma's kitchen with all the hot cocoa you can drink and French bread you can eat, but you would do homework from 8 to 12 without exception. The homework was stained with chocolate, but it got done.

And that was our life. It’s not a very conducive environment to learn the English language, much less learn the material.

This is where I always tell people that even though I was born in this great country of ours, I did not master English until I was about 12, but things changed for the better when I was in the second grade. When I was in the second grade, we were at our last stop in Stockton. My dad gets up and makes the announcement, saying, "We're going to Mexico. Get three months of homework."

And I was used to it because I did it in kindergarten and first grade, so I said, "Fine." My siblings were older; they had done it for even longer.

At school that day, I go to my teacher's class, Ms. Young. What can I tell you about Ms. Young? She was pretty and tall, Asian, right out of college. Well, she's tall relative to a second grader because now I see she's kind of short. And did I say she was pretty? Who was your first crush in second grade? I'm guilty as charged.

I tell Ms. Young that we were going to Mexico. She gives me a frustrated look, and you can understand the frustration because she has done this with my three older siblings. This is the fourth time, and the fourth time is a charm.

She says, "You tell your parents I'm going to come home and talk to them." Man, I got scared. I got scared because, for a Latino family, you don't want the teacher to come home. But I said, "OK, Ms. Young, I will."

When school is out, I usually wait for my siblings, and we walk home together. Not this time, because I had some juicy gossip for my parents. I ran home as soon as school was out. I felt like Paul Revere: "The teacher is coming. The teacher is coming."

I get home, and the first person I run into is my dad. And my dad and mom work in the fields, but they always pride themselves on being home before school was out. I lamented the fact that the first person I ran into was my dad in the living room because he was a real special guy. He's very short on words and quick on action. He was definitely the disciplinarian in the family.

I walk in and tell my dad that the teacher is coming. I tell him I think it has to do with … but before I even finish the sentence, he gets up and he starts taking off his belt. You see, my dad has a different judicial system than the US judicial system.

His system is he likes to jump to conclusions, dole out the punishment, and then ask what happened. And I wasn't about to get whipped for something I didn't do. I'm backtracking, spilling everything out, and seeing what sticks out on the wall. Apparently, the fact that we were going to Mexico made him doubt, so he didn't whip me, which was great.

Now I have to tell my mom. She's in the kitchen. Her routine was she would race into the kitchen, fix us a snack, sit us down right after school, and feed us a snack. Then she did not let us get up until we finished our homework and demonstrated it.

I thank her for instilling good study habits because she did that without fail. And we did that every day, and this day was no different.

Her demeanor is the polar opposite of my dad's. She's the caring, nurturing one that took care of us. I tell my kids this is why I'm so balanced; I had both extremes as parents.

But I tell my mom that the teacher is coming, and her reaction is entirely different than my dad's. She puts on that look and says, "The teacher is coming; we got to sweep and mop and clean the house."

That was her priority. I loved when we had visitors in our house because I grew up in a very humble house.

I never went to bed hungry because my dad was a hard worker. Even in the wintertime, he would find pruning jobs, but during the wintertime, sometimes I had just rice, beans, tortillas, and salsa. But when we had visitors, the protein magically appeared in the form of a thin steak or some chicken or pork chops.

So, I loved it when my dad announced that my uncle or someone was coming over because we would eat meat that day.

When Ms. Young came, it was no different. She came, and we had a good dinner, but then my dad invites Ms. Young to the living room. My mom comes with coffee, and they drag me along. Why do they drag me along? Well, in those days, my parents could not speak English. Ms. Young did not speak Spanish, so the kids were the translators. I was the official translator in the family, especially since she was my teacher.

Then Ms. Young says, "I didn't come here to eat dinner, but thank you very much. I came here to talk about the education process of your four kids."

I translated that for my dad. Remember I told you he likes to jump to conclusions? You can see his demeanor change to a face of anger. And if you saw his neck, you can see the vein pulsating with his anger. Ms. Young noticed that because – and if I had to read my dad's mind – he was thinking this is not a complaint of one kid, it's a complaint of all four, because Ms. Young said, "I had the pleasure of teaching your four kids in my class. Right now, I have your youngest."

When I translated that, Ms. Young quickly noticed that the demeanor changed. And she calmed my dad and said, "No, no, no, it's nothing bad, sir. It's actually quite good." She says, "Let me tell you, they all demonstrate good aptitude for study. I think they're all good college material, but the fact you're moving around is affecting them."

And my dad puts a halt to her words and says, "Ms. Young, we're not like other migrant farm working families. We believe in education. Wherever we're at, my kids are in school or studying."

Ms. Young says, "Yes, but you move around a lot. You go to three different school districts."

You know what my dad's response was? "Yes, Ms. Young, but we move on the weekend. What's the problem?"

That's true. We finished school on Friday, we moved Saturday, and Monday we were in a new school. We did not miss a day of school.

Then Ms. Young says, “But then you go to Mexico for three months."

My dad says, "Ms. Young, you prepare their homework. Are you not giving them the right homework?" In my dad's eyes, he was meeting his obligation of giving us an education. Never mind we were moving all around and self-studying for three months. In his eyes, we were doing OK.

Ms. Young was clearly frustrated, and she thought for a while, then I saw her crack half a smile as she got an idea. She does something brilliant; she elevates my dad. She puts him on a pedestal. She tells my dad, "Mr. Hernández, your kids tell me you've been working in agriculture all your life. That must make you an expert."

Oh, man, you didn't have to tell that to my dad. He admits it. He pulls up his collar. "Ms. Young, I'm not sure I can be considered an expert, but I do have a lot of years in agriculture. What can I help you with?"

She laid out a full smile because he took the bait. And she says, "Well, I want to give you a problem, and if you help me solve it, perhaps it will help the both of us."

My dad said, "OK. What's the problem?"

She said, "Imagine, Mr. Hernández, that I give you a tree, a fruit tree, in a potted plant, small fruit tree, I'm going to give it to you."

My dad says, "Well, thank you. What do you want me to do with it?"

"Here's what I want you to do. Find the best ground here, dig a hole, plant that tree, water it, and fertilize it like the expert that you are. Can you do that for me?" My dad says, "Sure."

Then she says, "In about three or four months, I want you to find another piece of ground equally as good. Dig another hole. That tree that you planted, transplant it in the new hole. Keep taking care of it. Can you do that?"

My dad looks confused now and says, "Yeah. I don't know why, but yeah, sure, I can do that."

"Great," Ms. Young says. "Every three or four months, I want you to continuously transplant that tree, but you're going to take good care of it like the expert that you are. You, who is an expert in agriculture, what happens to that tree in the long run?"

And my dad thinks for a little while. He knows the answer. "Well, Ms. Young, the tree is not going to die, but I will tell you this: You're going to stunt its growth. The tree is going to stay small, short, and weak. And if it's a fruit tree, it probably won't even bear fruit. Why? Because you're not letting the roots grow deep. The tree needs to be in one place for the roots to grow deep and the branches," as he raises his arms for theatrical measure, "and the branches to grow big and strong."

He keeps his hands up, and then he humbly lowers them because he knows he's been had.

He realized that that example was meant for him to realize what he was doing to his kids. I give my dad a lot of credit because this is a man who only has a third-grade education, like my mom. And he's very proud.

I also give my dad credit because that same instant, he looks into Ms. Young's eyes and says, "Is that what you mean?"

Ms. Young says, "That's what I mean. I think my job is done here." She excused herself.

That year, we still went to Mexico, but instead of staying three months, we stayed three weeks centered around Christmas. On the way back, a two-and-a-half-day drive from central Mexico to California, we didn't stop in southern California. We didn't stop in central California. We went straight to Stockton. That became our only stop. And every year, we'd go to Mexico but only for three weeks. That's when our education started to get traction.

A lot of people say, OK, you're doing well in school, but you still come from a farm-working family living at or near poverty. How in the heck does a kid like you ever dream of wanting to become an astronaut?

That dream was conceived when I was 10 years old. I was lucky enough to be watching TV that day. It was 1972. December, to be exact. And we had an old black and white TV. We couldn't afford cable, so we had the next best thing: rabbit-ears antennas. And you didn't want to sit next to my dad because he would give you the elbow. What's the elbow? Change the channel.

One day, he must have done it six or seven times, and my arm was hurting so much that I got frustrated. When you have a rabbit-ears antenna, you only get three channels – ABC, NBC, and CBS. You also get PBS, but no one watches that one, right?

I was frustrated and mustered up the courage to say, "Dad, why don't you get a new TV that's color; that's color with a remote control?" He looks at me and says, "Boy, why would I want a remote control when I have you? Go change the channel." And then he's very pragmatic and says, “You want color? Use your mind."

That's his solution: use your imagination. So, that TV worked for another three years, and when something good came on, I was not only the remote control but also the official antenna adjuster. When you adjust the antenna, you kind of ground yourself, and you get a nice, clear image. You let go, and it gets fuzzy. Then you grab it, and it gets clear. My dad saw that happen a couple of times when they interrupted programming and started televising the last Apollo mission – the moonwalk. As I grabbed it that third time, he says, "Stay there." So I had to stand there while my family had their fill. Of course, I was interested, so I was holding it.

I think I became an astronaut through osmosis. You got Gene Cernan walking on the moon, and I'm watching him and holding the antenna. Something must have programmed and said you're going to be an astronaut.

You can imagine a 10-year-old boy sitting in front of a fuzzy black and white TV. I'm watching Gene Cernan walking on the moon. Then I would go outside – it was a cold December evening – see the moon almost full, come back inside, and listen to the reporters. I can still remember his name, Walter Cronkite, narrating that moonwalk. And that's when I said, "That's what I want to be. I want to be that guy. I want to be an astronaut."

I remember telling my father that evening I wanted to be an astronaut. When I told him, he stopped dead in his tracks and said, "Let's go to the kitchen." I got scared because only three things happen in the kitchen and two already happened.

I already told you the first one: my mom feeds us right after school, and we do our homework. Done. Second, at my mom's insistence, we eat dinner together as a family all the time, at the same time. Done. The third thing that hadn't happened, hence my concern, is that's where they doled out the corporal punishment.

I go in and sit at the same place where I eat and do my homework. And my dad sits next to me. He’s not mad; he's curious. He crosses his hands, sits down next to me, and says, "Now, what's this? You want to be an astronaut?"

I just started talking, regurgitating everything Walter Cronkite said that evening. "Yeah, Dad, this is a quarter million miles away, but this is the last Apollo mission. They're going to build a new space vehicle, and I want to be on it."

And he must have seen the determination of a 10-year-old boy. My dad was wise beyond his third-grade education because as soon as he saw that, he did two important things. The first thing he did was validate the dream. "I think you can do it."

And when you're 10 years old and your parent says you can do something, you believe it.

I believed it. Not only that, but he also had the wisdom to blurt out a simple yet powerful five-ingredient recipe. He says, "If you really want to do this, follow these five simple steps, and I will guarantee you, as your father, you'll reach your goal."

I immediately became a sponge and said, "What are they?"

He says, "Very simple, son. First is define your purpose in life. What's José’s purpose?"

I said, "I want to be an astronaut." I figured one out of five, and I'm almost there.

"Second, recognize how far you are from your goal." Man, I looked at our kitchen floor, half peeling linoleum floor, two-bedroom dilapidated rental, the worst part of Stockton. I told my dad, "Don't get mad, but we can't be any farther than this."

I thought he was going to slap me one, but he says, "You recognize that, son, because the third thing you got to do is you got to draw yourself a road map so you know where you're at and clearly from your smart remarks you do know where you want to go. You have to know the way to your destination. Draw yourself a map so you know how to get there."

I said, "What's the fourth one?" He says, "You're doing it already, son. You have to prepare yourself according to the challenge you selected. And you picked a doozy. You know you got to go to college and then some, right?" I said, "Yeah."

"Fifth and final," he says, "equally as important." He points out the kitchen window and says, "You know that effort you put out Saturdays and Sundays seven days a week during the summers picking fruits and vegetables with your siblings, Mom, and Dad?" I said, "Yeah." He points to my books on the kitchen table and said, "You put that effort there. And when you graduate and go to work, you put that effort into your job."

His parting words that evening were always to give more than what people expect out of you. Always give more. I went to bed so happy that day because I said, “Wow, my dad thinks I can be an astronaut. Ergo, I'm going to be one.”

And I never looked back. That recipe up there is worth taking a picture if you want. It works.

The only thing I would add to it is that the sixth ingredient you see up there is perseverance because the human tendency is to give up after the second or third failure. And I'm here to tell you guys that you shouldn't do that. If you really want it, you should keep striving, keep improving yourself, and keep trying. For me, it took 12 applications and 11 rejections by NASA before they finally invited me to be part of the 19th class of NASA astronauts. You can't give up on yourselves.

Having said that, I went ahead and went through high school, college, and graduate school and landed my first job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and I had a choice of working on three projects. The lab has about 13,000 employees, and it’s dedicated to national defense and the primary nuclear regime. The project I picked was because it was the only one that involved space. It was during the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative. We were building a defense shield, and it was developing a nuclear pump X-ray laser that would be deployed in space. I couldn't care less about the nuclear pump X-ray laser. I just cared about the fact we were sending stuff up into space. I figured that would look good on my application.

I took this job, and I submitted my first application to NASA. And I got my first rejection. It was actually a cool rejection letter. It was on official NASA letterhead with the little ball, everything on there. They even had my name. It said, "Dear Applicant." But it was mine. I still have the envelope addressed to me, so I can prove it's mine.

It had good news, bad news, and then good news. It first said the good news. Upon reviewing your application, we concur with your assessment that you qualify to be considered for the NASA astronaut position. I said, all right. NASA agrees that I'm qualified. I got the minimum requirements in.

Then it says, however, more than 12,962 people who applied also meet the minimum requirements. We can only select 100 finalists, and from these 100 finalists, we'll select 10 to 15 astronauts. Unfortunately, you're not one of the 100 finalists. Bad news. I'm not being considered anymore.

Then, more good news. Please feel free to reapply at our next selection cycle. I said, OK. Maybe I'm too green. I'm just fresh out of college. I could accept the rejection here. I even framed the letter and put it on the back of my wall. When people came to my office, I said, hey, NASA thinks I can be an astronaut. So cool.

I worked on this project for five years, and then something amazing happened – the Soviet Union dissolved. But the result was justification for grandiose projects like this goes away, and the project gets canceled.

About 200 of us worked on this project. At the lab, people can get absorbed into other projects, so people quickly go out and find other assignments, and they abandon the project because it's being canceled. But I worked for five years on this project and developed some pretty good tools using 3D X-ray Monte Carlo transport techniques, learning how X-rays interact with matter in 3D and being able to model that.

I felt like I had some pretty neat tools, and it would be a shame to mothball it like we were mothballing everything else. I said there has to be an application for this. I felt like I had an answer, but I didn't know the question. I go to my boss and say, "Hey, boss, look what I have here. I think we can do something else with it."

He agreed and said, “Hey, don't look for a new job. I got six to nine months of funding to button up this project and document it. Why don't you stay with me, and you and I will find out what that question is."

So, I did. And what was that question? The question is, how do you build and design the first full-field digital mammography system for earlier detection of breast cancer? We ushered in the era of wide-area digital imaging for medical applications.

We designed everything from the X-ray to the filtering system and introduced charged couple devices. We're simulating material to be able to detect X-rays, designing this system, and demonstrating to the FDA that our images were far superior to the film screen systems they were using with light tables that the doctors were interpreting to find breast cancer.

We had a lot more information in these images, and we proved that. That allowed us to be able to develop computer-aided diagnosis algorithms to find possible early precursors to breast cancer like microcalcification, stellate circumscribed lesions, and asymmetric glandular distortions – all these things we programmed into our system so that it would analyze the images since they were digital already.

We proved to the FDA that we had better efficacy than film-screen systems because more information means earlier detection, and earlier detection means saving lives. This device has been credited with saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives through earlier detection.

This is what I'm most proud of in my professional career. People expect me to say I’m an astronaut; I went to space as a flight engineer to the International Space Station. I say, no, because this project really made an impact on humanity. It was a five-year effort, and I’m very proud we could do it.

After working on this, I'm still applying to NASA, and I'm up to my sixth rejection. When I get that sixth rejection, I guarantee I did not frame that one. I was at home, and I was mad. Six rejections. After doing a lot of good work in my career, I said, come on, guys, what else do you need from me? And I scrunched up the rejection letter and threw it in my garbage can in my home office there. I couldn't even get that right because I missed, and it hit the floor.

But thank God it hit the floor because I was married by then, and it was Saturday when she was cleaning. Had the letter made it into the garbage can, she would have grabbed the bag and thrown it away, and I wouldn't be here with you. In my mind, I had given up. I wasn't going to apply anymore. The fact that it missed the garbage can caused her to pick it up. She was curious and opened it up.

She's a smart lady. She put two and two together. She thought this guy is giving up, so she confronts me. And as I saw her with that scrunched-up letter, which was unscrunched but wrinkled now, I knew what the subject would be.

I'm an opportunist, so I said this is the perfect time for me to get some pity points from my wife. I'm going to say poor me. NASA doesn't want me, and she's going to cuddle me, hold me, and give me hot cocoa, just like grandma used to do. I tell her my sob story. And guess what? There was no hot cocoa. There was no cuddling. She knows how to push my buttons. She looked straight at me and said, "So you're a quitter."

Those are fighting words. I said, "No, I'm not a quitter. Look, it's obvious that NASA doesn't want me. This is my sixth rejection."

And she said, "I agree NASA doesn't want you the sixth time. NASA didn't want you the fifth, the fourth, or the third, or the first time. But read the last sentence in your letter to me out loud." She uses her grown-up voice. "Out loud, please."

Remember what that last sentence says? "Please feel free to reapply."

"NASA is not telling you don't apply. But I will tell you this: If you don't apply, you're not going to get selected. And I will tell you this: If you don't apply, you're going to have that little what-if worm of curiosity inside of you. And that little worm will gnaw at you and gnaw at you, and you'll grow up to be a bitter old man. And guess what, I don't want to be married to a bitter old man, so you better think about it."

And that's when she said something that really resonated with me. She said, "What do they have that you don't have?" They, meaning the people that got selected as astronauts.

And as she walked away, I was trying to answer that question. What do they have that I don't have? And I couldn't answer it. I realized I was so fixated on meeting minimum requirements that I didn't bother to say what else I could do to make myself better, aside from having a successful technical career at the Lawrence Livermore Lab.

I took a deep dive into the careers and resumes of astronauts who got selected. I found out they had similar education, work experience, and age, but then I took a deeper dive. They were all pilots. I wasn't a pilot. So, I invested in myself, and I became a pilot.

Another year, I did the same thing. Sure enough, they were all pilots, and I was a pilot, so I was happy. But I took a deeper dive and found out they were scuba-dive rated. Now, I got to learn how to scuba dive. I lived in landlocked Stockton, so I had to drive two hours every weekend to Monterey, California. I became basic certified, advanced certified, scuba rescue, and master rated. I wanted to make sure NASA knew I knew how to scuba dive. And that's what I did.

You have to go back a little bit, but the moral of the story is when there's adversity, look at it as an opportunity.

Remember the Star Wars X-ray laser that was canceled? Instead of looking for another job, I looked for a new opportunity, and we came up with this marvelous device. In this case, if you want to be like someone who's successful, study that individual. And be honest with yourself and ask yourself, what do they have that I don't have? And don't be afraid to invest in yourself. You have to invest in yourself to make yourself better. And that's what I did.

I kept applying to NASA and getting rejected, but I was making myself better. And then, I signed up for a project. I think this is what pushed me over the hump. I signed up for this project, which no one wanted to participate in. It was to work in Russia as part of the nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

Before we were protecting ourselves against the Russians with the X-ray laser. Now, I'm being asked to go to Russia and help those damn Russians take control of their nuclear stockpile. We didn't want this material to end up in world nations, so it was in our best interest for world security to help them. No one wanted this job because it was about a five-year project that would take you to Russia five or six times a year. Yeah, it wasn't in St. Petersburg or Moscow. It was where all their nuclear weapons facility sites were, which were in the remote east of Siberia.

When the State Department, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy came to our lab because we're the ones who know how to work with the material, they said we want your scientists to help us go to Russia and help in this as subject matter experts. You could hear crickets. No one wanted to go. But I raised my hand. I said, "Put me in, coach, I'll go."

I did that not because I wanted to get to Siberia in the middle of winter. It was because I had read in the papers that the US and the newly formed Russian Federation had signed an agreement to build what was going to be the International Space Station. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out – even though I am one – we were going to be working with the Russians up in space in the near future.

This is a great opportunity. This will be my great differentiator from all those other 12,962 applicants. How many of them will be able to say they went to Russia? How many can say they worked with the Russians in the technical field? How many of them will be able to say they can speak Russian?

I didn't want to do it because it's tough duty, but sometimes you have to do tough things that you don't want to do to reach your final goal. You also have to be strategic because no one wanted this. I had read that we were going to be working with the Russians up in space, or I deduced that we would be working with Russians up in space, so I was strategic, and I said I'm going to go after this job. I don't like it, but it's going to help me in the long run, and it did.

And on my 11th try, I don't get a rejection letter. The letter said congratulations, you're one of the 100 finalists being considered. You just won an all-expense trip to Houston, Texas, where we're going to poke and prod you where the sun doesn't shine. We're going to give you psychological profile tests. We're going to give you aptitude testing. And guess what? I didn't get selected.

But I was only one of two individuals who received the consolation prize. What was that consolation prize? Go to work at NASA as a staff engineer. I was working with many materials and nondestructive testing – all that stuff at Lawrence Livermore Lab. And they say, oh, by the way, you make too much money. So, if you commit to working with us, you're going to get a 15% pay cut. Try to explain that to the wife. Hey, honey, how would you like to move from California, where the weather is perfect, to hot and muggy Houston and absorb a 15% pay cut? But she's a real trooper. She said, let's do it.

I went with the understanding that in two years they were going to have another selection round. The director who invited me was the one who was sponsoring me; he only selected two people. They wanted to take a closer look at us to see if we were the real deal. It was clear to me that if I didn't accept that job, I probably wouldn't get selected.

I accepted it and started working as an NDE engineer. Within six months, I became the chief of the materials and processes branch. This is where there's a lot of relation with the type of stuff you guys do. We did nondestructive testing, materials testing, failure analysis, and a lot of work on composite over at pressure vessels because our space shuttle is full of them. We also did a lot of testing, including accelerated lifecycle testing at White Sands. We did burst and leak-before-burst testing.

Two months after I got there, they announced the selection cycle would be in four years, not two. And then the guy that sponsored me, the director, gets fired. Now, I don't have an advocate; I'm in no man's land. What turned out to be a two-year experiment is going to be a four-year experiment with no advocate. I just put my head down and said I'm going to work my butt off and do my job. Then, I became branch chief.

In 2003, unfortunately, we had the Columbia accident. Our group did a lot of the failure analysis and the accident reconstruction. My group was in north Texas and Louisiana, picking up the pieces of the shuttle and putting them out in the hangar. We had the outline of the shuttle so we could put the pieces in the right places. Then, we had to tell the story to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which President Bush formed.

We did all that, and it gave me a lot of exposure. A year after that, they had another selection, and I was one of the 100 finalists again. This time, I was successful. They invited me to be part of the 19th class of NASA astronauts. And this is after 12 tries and 11 rejections. But be careful what you wish for, though, because it may come true.

It turns out you're not really an astronaut when you get selected. You're an astronaut candidate for the next two years. Astronaut candidate, derogatory term, As-Can, with no rights or privileges whatsoever.

In the next two years, you get academics and 19 thick binders. You learn how to pilot a jet, operate the space shuttle, and operate the International Space Station. And every Friday for those two years, you have an oral test, a written test, and a simulator test, and you have to pass everything. It's like being in finals in college for two years in a row.

It's very tough on you and your family. It’s stressful, but you get through it. Two years as a team, you push each other, you study together, and you get through it. And then you get your wings.

Now you're a card-carrying astronaut, so you accept a technical assignment, and you keep training, and, of course, some of that training includes flying jets. It includes doing the water and cold weather survival training, where they drop you off in the mountains of Wyoming with very little food. They have food drops.

They keep you moving, stress out your body, and make sure you work well as a team. For water survival, you have to swim a mile in full fatigues with heavy boots and a helmet within a certain period of time. Then they drop you off in the middle of the ocean, and you tread water for hours on end. And you hope the rescue helicopter finds you before the sharks do.

You also do wilderness survival training. They don't even give you food and water. They provide a map, a compass, and a satellite phone for medical emergencies. They say you're here, and we want you over here, which is an 18-mile hike. Along the way, you have to find your own water and food. You eat root systems and plants. And this is where I found out that squirrels taste like chicken. You'd be fighting me for that squirrel if you were out there.

You also do analog missions. We have a habitat out in Key Largo, Florida, 60 feet underwater, where you do 14- to 20-day missions simulating you're on the surface of the moon or Mars.

You do those all for training, getting ready for training for a real mission. Once you’re assigned a mission, you're off to the races. You train for 18 months with the same people you're going to be for those 14 days in space. And once you do that, you're ready to go.

I love the picture up on top to the right. It's the whole crew getting on the Astro van to make the six-and-a-half-mile trip to launch pad 39 Alpha and go up the launch tower elevator to the 195-foot level. And you go into the white room, which interfaces with the entry to the space shuttle. I'm a happy camper grinning from ear to ear because I'm about to realize a 37-year-old dream. I got selected when I was 42, and I didn't fly until I was 47.

A few weeks before that, we had a dress rehearsal. And you can see, like a good Catholic, I have five kids – with the same wife. I'm very proud of my kids. My oldest one just finished his Ph.D. at Purdue in aerospace engineering. When I asked him why Purdue, he said he made a list of all the astronauts NASA ever selected. And guess which school has produced the most astronauts? Purdue. That's how he told me he wanted to be an astronaut. I said, "Well, good luck, son."

My girls all graduated from college, too – one from the University of Pacific and another from UC Santa Barbara. One even has a master's in data science. I can see the light at the end of the long, dark tuition tunnel because the last one just finished his third year of school in mechanical engineering, so in a couple of years, I'll be free, but then, of course, the weddings are going to start.

Anyway, then we're actually getting on the vehicle, and we launch. I'm inside the vehicle as the flight engineer sitting right in between the two pilots, right behind them. It’s the best seat in the house because I get the panoramic view, but it’s also the busiest because I'm watching instruments from both pilots. And if anything goes wrong, I peel off the pilot who owns the system, and I'm the flight engineer with the manuals and everything that's instructing him what to do in the event of a failure.

I want to show you a summary of the mission video because I think you'll like it. It only takes eight and a half minutes to get into space. You go from zero to 17,500 miles an hour. It's the best ride Disney can ever hope for. Once you're up there at that speed, you go around the world every 90 minutes.

Then, we docked at the International Space Station. We were the second to last mission to complete the construction of the station. We took seven tons of equipment installed inside and outside, doing three spacewalks in groups of two astronauts.

Here's the summary of the mission. The first thing you'll see is the mission patch. It has the last names of every astronaut and the mission number STS 128. Launch directors are going to give us the green light to launch.

You're going to see the three engines light up first and then the two solid rocket boosters. The boosters are on for only two and a half minutes, and then they pop off and fall into the ocean with parachutes because they're reusable. There are the three engines and solid rocket boosters next.

You'll hear my voice, the cadence where we're at, the flight profile. There's the solid rocket booster separation. The remaining engines are fueled by the two tanks in the middle. Cut off above the line means we're about to reach MECO – main engine cut off.

Once we shut off the engines, we go to external tank (ET) separation. In the inset picture, the shuttle on top protects the bottom as it separates.

That's ET separation. And now you can officially say we're in space, going around the world in a continuous fashion. You'll see me give the thumbs up because I consider myself now a bona fide astronaut.

Of course, once you're up there, you're always floating; you never walk. This is Nicole Stott, fellow engineer; Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish astronaut; and yours truly putting together computers so we can dock to the station.

Our commander, CJ Sturckow, now works for Virgin Galactic. Tim Kopra is playing with water. Nicole is brushing her teeth. José is goofing off. I filmed this for my kids. That cylinder is the seven tons of equipment that we're going to install both inside and outside of the Space Station. First, we got to dock at the station. This is the final moment of docking. Celebrate! Nicole is going to stay behind. Part of our mission is to leave her behind and bring back Tim Kopra, who's been up there for three months.

Once we dock, we open the hatch to the docking ports, and you can float into the station. We grab the robotic arm. That cylinder is called the multi-purpose logistics module, where we have seven tons of equipment and put it in the docking port. Once we dock it, we pressurize it and open it up. It’s pretty easy to unload seven tons of equipment at zero gravity. Installing it is the tough part, especially outside. When we install it outside, it's in groups of two – three spacewalks, seven hours each.

I didn't do a spacewalk because I'm the flight engineer. I take care of the inside. It would be bad if something happened and I'm not inside. I do leak checks and make sure everything works before they go out. Once they're out there, I'm one of the two robotic arm operators, so I operate the robotic arm and take them from the worksite to the payload bay to get the equipment. I'm kind of like their Uber in space.

We undock from the station, which is as big as a football field. Now, we're ready to go home. We put on the pressure launch entry suits. The weather was bad in Florida, so we landed at Edwards Air Force Base. I call it poetic justice landing because it's about 80 miles from where I used to pick strawberries as a kid, so that was pretty good.

Finishing up, I want to tell you to remember not to be afraid to enjoy the journey, whatever it is, because that's about 70% to 80% of your time and effort. I always tell people if you're not enjoying the journey, chances are you picked the wrong destination for yourself.

I love this full-circle slide because it shows me working on the farms, driving a tractor at age 12, and 14 years ago, going to space. Today, you can still see me drive a tractor and pick grapes, but they're my grapes, and it's my tractor. I own a vineyard. And I not only grow grapes, but I also produce my own wines. If you want a wine that tastes out of this world, we deliver. If you go to my website, you, too, can have the best tasting wine made by an astronaut. It's probably the only one, but it does taste out of this world.

I have also written books, including a children's illustrated book and a middle reader book. Hollywood came calling, and they were interested in my autobiography called “Reaching For the Stars.” They wanted to make a movie, and it stars none other than Michael Peña playing yours truly in “A Million Miles Away” on Prime Video. I know what you guys are thinking. He's not as good-looking as I am. But he's a good actor. This short trailer of the movie shows when I first shared my dream of becoming an astronaut when I was courting my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time.

Now, I'll leave you with this. I gave you the five-ingredient recipe from my father, and I added perseverance. The one I came up with is the Three Element Strategy. Remember the first six times I was just focused on minimum requirements (first element)? It wasn't until my wife asked me what they have that I don't have that I came up with the second element: compare yourself to people you want to be like.

And finally, the third one was when I got that job in Russia that no one wanted. I took advantage of it because I knew it would differentiate me from the competition. Put that together with that six-ingredient recipe, and I'm here to tell you the same thing my dad told me: You can reach any goal you put yourself forward.