“It's OK to dream big – if you're willing to put in the hard work and effort to convert that dream into reality,” said migrant-farmer-turned engineer-turned-astronaut José Hernández.
That’s the message he hopes viewers take away from A Million Miles Away, his own life story dramatized as an inspiring, old-school tale of determination. The family-friendly biopic from director Alejandra Márquez Abella and producer Mark Ciardi (Invincible, Miracle) is streaming now on Prime Video worldwide.
Following last year’s inspiring NASA docudrama Goodnight Oppy, about the heroic efforts of a Mars rover crew, it’s hardly a giant leap (so to speak) for Amazon’s streaming service to return to space.
As a boy, José worked with his family as they migrated from farms in central Mexico to California’s San Joaquin Valley. Despite their nomadic life, he tried to stay consistent with his studies.
When José first saw a black-and-white TV image of a rocket heading into space, fascination became obsession. The grade-schooler’s bright crayon drawing of a rocket “is real,” Hernández told me. “It wasn't quite a cornhusk rocket – it was my best rendition of a real Apollo rocket.”
He adds the film using it as a framing device is factual too. “The fact that Ms. Young came to our house was real. And the fact that she was sitting next to my parents when I launched into space and watched it live from Cape Canaveral, that was real as well.”
"I refuse to call it discrimination."
Soon after graduation, Hernández was hired at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a prestigious research facility. But the film depicts that he was, at first, mistaken for a janitor and even later, given menial tasks such as copying documents.
“I refuse to call it discrimination,” said Hernández. “I just chalked it up to say: 'Hey, I got to prove myself, and I'm going to work my butt off and show these guys that I'm worthy of being here.' I wanted to make sure I earned my keep.”
In fact, it was at Lawrence Livermore lab where he says his “proudest professional accomplishment” occurred. “People think I'm going to say, ‘Oh, I went up into space as a flight engineer.’ In fact, it was working on a device that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.”
Hernández worked in tandem with Fisher Imaging to develop the first full-field digital mammography imaging system, a tool in the early detection of breast cancer.
While the film depicts his brilliance in the lab, it doesn’t delve into this chapter of his career. “That's what I'm so proud of,” he said. “It's a shame we didn't get it into the movie, but there's only so much you could put in two hours.”
Most viewers will recognize star Michael Peña as the fast-talking Latino co-star of Ant-Man and its sequel – or perhaps from World Trade Center, The Martian or countless TV shows in which he’s starred.
As Hernández, Peña embodies a single-minded man on a mission –- though he doesn’t stay single for long. The film draws some humor from his chaste courtship with his intended, Adella, and her protective family. (As Kate O’Hare notes, the Catholic couple today has five children.)
Obsession and the daily grind
Famously rejected 11 times by NASA, Hernández said he would sulk for one or two days afterward. But he would prop himself back up through self-talk and seeing the bigger picture.
“Look, wanting to be an astronaut motivated you to go to college, graduate school, and work in a premier research facility,” Hernández said he told himself. “You're enjoying what you're doing and earning a great salary. That’s not a bad consolation prize.
"So, if I never got selected, yes, I’d be disappointed. But it's not the end of the world.”
In motivational talks he gives, he tells students to aim high –- and to love the path getting there.
“So the goal is: don't be obsessed in such a way that you won't enjoy the journey,” he said. “Perhaps you won't make it up there. But make sure you enjoy what happens along the way, because that's 80 or 90% of your time.”
Eventually, he did get accepted -- in part, because he accepted a six-month stint living in Russia on a joint project, and learned Russian to do it. He spent 14 days on the International Space Station, as his extended family cheered him on.
A Million Miles Away is produced with rich cultural details. Hernández commented on his family’s trials and triumphs, saying, “It doesn't matter what socioeconomic level you come from, education is the great equalizer. That's certainly what happened to me.”
“It may take us a little hard work to get there, but the dream is still alive and well here in America.”
Here's the whole interview:
Rated PG for thematic elements and language, A Million Miles Away is streaming worldwide on Prime Video.
Image: Michael Peña in 'A Million Miles Away'/Photo: Daniel Daza, © 2023 Amazon Content Services LLC
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.