Migrant-farmer-turned-astronaut Leaving NASA for MEI Technologies

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SAN FRANCISCO — After 10 years with NASA and one shuttle flight, astronaut Jose Hernandez is leaving the U.S. space agency for a job in the private sector, NASA announced Jan. 14.

Hernandez, the son of Mexican migrant farm workers, served as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-128 mission in 2009.

He will join Houston-based MEI Technologies in February as executive director of strategic operations, according to company spokeswoman Cristina Mire.

MEI Technologies is an engineering services firm that counts NASA among its clients. The company recorded $142 million in space-related revenue in 2009.

“Jose’s talent and dedication have contributed greatly to the agency, and he is an inspiration to many,” Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement. “We wish him all the best with this new phase of his |career.”

Hernandez, 48, was born in California. He spent much of his childhood in the fields of Mexico and California, picking cucumbers, strawberries and other produce with his family. His field-hand-to-spaceman story has been, he hopes, an inspiration for the Latino community.

Hernandez did not learn English until he was 12 years old, yet still excelled in school, eventually earning a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In 2001, Hernandez joined NASA as a materials research engineer at Johnson. Three years later, he was selected as an astronaut candidate, and he completed his astronaut training in 2006, NASA officials said.

Hernandez was a mission specialist on Discovery’s STS-128 mission in 2009. During that flight, he oversaw the transfer of more than 8,100 kilograms of supplies and equipment between the shuttle and international space station, according to NASA officials.

Hernandez also assisted with robotics operations and served as a flight engineer in the shuttle’s cockpit during launch and landing.

Hernandez’s departure comes just two weeks after fellow astronaut Marsha Ivins, a veteran of five shuttle missions, left NASA.

The two departures are part of a larger trend, with NASA’s active astronaut corps slimming down substantially over the last five years. This could be the result of astronauts assessing their options as NASA enters a transition period, experts say: The space agency is retiring its shuttle fleet later this year after 30 years of service.