Dark Sky Festival 2016


Astronaut reveals path into space

Engineer, author, businessman, and former astronaut Jose Hernandez shared his journey for a Dark Sky Festival  audience at the Three Rivers Memorial Building. The astronaut’s program on Friday, Aug. 5, was one of the signature events of the third annual Dark Sky Festival, organized by Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

Hernandez began with his tough childhood.  As the youngest of four kids in a migrant farmworker family, Hernandez moved every few months and spoke only Spanish until the age of 12.

With third-grade educations themselves, Hernandez’s parents put great emphasis on doing homework and staying in school.  Working in the fields during summer, Hernandez and his brothers couldn’t wait for September.    

“How do you feel?  Exhausted?” Hernandez’s father asked him one day after a long, hot day of picking vegetables. “If you don’t like school you can come work in the fields seven days a week with us.”  

The young Hernandez took that lesson to heart. Mesmerized by black-and-white television coverage of the Apollo 17 moon-landing mission when he was 10, Hernandez told his father he wanted to be an astronaut. 

Hernandez graduated with a Master’s degree in computer engineering from University of California, Santa Barbara. He began his engineering career at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, developing the first full-field digital mammography system. This has been successful in the detection of breast cancer. 

But the number-one factor in Hernandez’s success has been perseverance.  

“I was rejected by NASA 11 times,” he confessed. “I became a pilot and master diver just to compete with other NASA applicants. I also learned Russian to add another feather in my cap.”

In 2007, Hernandez served as an aquanaut in the Aquarius underwater lab near the Florida Keys, living underwater for 11 days. Finally, chosen as a mission specialist for the STS-128 shuttle mission, Hernandez and the rest of the crew blasted off August 28, 2009, headed for the International Space Station.    

Shuttle missions are unique in that they occur in three stages. First, the shuttle is powered into space on the back of a rocket.  Next, the rocket and fuel tanks are jettisoned as the shuttle enters its orbiting stage. And when the mission is complete, the shuttle reenters the atmosphere with no propulsion, eventually landing like a glider.  

The STS-128 mission brought equipment, supplies, and a replacement crew member to the ISS. 

“We were orbiting the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour and had 45 minutes of sunlight alternating with 45 minutes of darkness,” said Hernandez. “I helped with putting on space suits, experiments, robotics, and technical maintenance. And I was the first astronaut to tweet in Spanish.”  

Hernandez recently wrote a book about his life called Reaching for the Stars, sharing his secrets to success.  

“You have to map out a path to reach your goals and stick to it,” Hernandez explained to a rapt audience of all ages. “Anything is possible if you work hard and put your mind to it.” 


More information on this extraordinary career pathway can be found at Hernandez’s website: www.tierralunaengineering.com.


Rockets and rangers


Kids hit the sky with flying colors at the Dark Sky Festival’s water-rocket event. On Saturday, Aug. 6, park rangers Chad Kilgore and Tina Hidalgo, and Hidalgo’s fiancĂ© John Parker Donnelly, supervised as kids launched their own custom rockets at Lake Kaweah’s Slick Rock Recreation Area.

The water-rocket launch was among dozens of events throughout Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks and nearby in Three Rivers during the weekend-long Dark Sky Festival. The three-day festival of free events was produced by the Sequoia Parks Conservancy and a host of sponsors.  

Hidalgo began the water rockets program with a presentation on the physics behind the rockets.

“The water pushes the rocket upward when it is forced out the nozzle by pressurized air injected with a bike pump,” explained Hidalgo. “The more pressure we add, the higher the rocket will go.”  

Next, the rangers set the kids to taping on fins and noses according to their personal taste. The girls’ rockets were more colorful than the boys’ more traditional designs.  

They next named their rockets, covering the bases with everything from “Zuma” to “Steve.”  Donnelly and Kilgore set up the launch platform and it was time for blast-off, four rockets at a time.

The kids pulled their own ripcords to a soundtrack of oohs and aahs. Some designs went higher than others but all the kids had fun, especially during the countdowns, or extended countUPs on a few occasions.  

Many parents, having as much fun as the kids, resolved to making their own launchers and rockets when they returned home.  

“Making these things doesn’t seem like rocket science but it really is,” said one dad. “It’s simple and fun, and also educational.”

Like all rockets, water rockets operate according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion:  When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.


For more information on making a rocket, check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_rocket.

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