‘A Million Miles Away’: Was Future Astronaut Jose Hernandez Really Mistaken for a Janitor?

The Prime Video biopic subject recalls his early days as an engineer at Lawrence Livermore Labs

Michael Pena portrays engineer-turned-astronaut Jose Hernandez in "A Million Miles Away" (Prime Video)
Michael Pena portrays engineer-turned-astronaut Jose Hernandez in "A Million Miles Away" (Prime Video)

Early on in Prime Video’s “A Million Miles Away,” engineer Jose Hernandez (Michael Pena) is mistaken for a janitor on his first day at Lawrence Livermore Labs.

“You’re the new guy, right?” a receptionist asks him, handing him the janitor’s set of keys and directing him to the supply room. Later in the film, Hernandez corrects her, adding, “Not that there’s anything wrong with it.”

TheWrap caught up with the real-life Jose Hernandez — who would become the first migrant farmworker to go into space — to fact-check the scene.

“In my particular case, that week two people started in the building; one was named Jose Hernandez, and the other one was, for lack of a better name, John Smith. They knew that one was an engineer, and the other was a custodian,” he recalled. “So you know, who you think they think the custodian was? That was me.”

“It took a couple of weeks to straighten out because I keep getting strange calls in my office saying, ‘Hey, the third-floor men’s room needs service.’ At first, I said, ‘Is this like a hazing ritual for the engineer or something?’ And then I finally went down and cleared it up with the receptionist.”

“Yeah, it happened. Things like that happen,” Hernandez continued. “You can’t get mad at people. You just educate them. It’s something my mother taught me when I first complained of being discriminated against, and that was when I took tacos to school and kids made fun of me. My mom said, ‘Kill them with love.’ And I didn’t understand what she meant. I said, ‘Explain that to me.’ And she said, ‘Show him who you are in here [points to his heart].’”

In another scene, Hernandez, acutely aware of how his predominantly white colleagues at the lab perceive him, trades in his enchiladas for white bread sandwiches.

“You wanted to fit in so you brought things that were more ‘traditional’ like sandwiches,” Hernandez recalled. “And then you’ve come to a point where you said, ‘You know, screw this, I want to eat good.’ So once you’ve established yourself and you have all the confidence in the world, it’s okay. I’m gonna bring in my burritos and my enchiladas and whatever mom or my wife cooks for dinner the night.”

Hernandez praised Pena’s portrayal, which chronicled the years when he was a young engineer to finally joining NASA’s space program after being rejected 11 times.

“I think the thing that he captured the most is the vulnerability side of me. The self-doubts, the imposter syndrome,” Hernandez explained. “Because it’s important that people realize that no matter where they’re at, or how successful they are, we all have these self-doubts, and that’s okay. And the solution is to work harder. Like my dad said, ‘If it gets heavy, just work harder.’ And so that’s what we got to do.”

“A Million Miles Away” is streaming on Prime Video.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


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