Q&A: How the true story of astronaut José Hernández became ‘A Million Miles Away’

Two people pose for a photo
Former NASA astronaut José Hernández, left, and film director Alejandra Márquez Abella together at the Four Seasons in Hollywood.
(Nalani Hernandez-Melo / For De Los)

“A Million Miles Away” shares the true story of NASA flight engineer José Hernández.

“Who better to leave this planet and dive into the unknown than a migrant farm worker?” Michael Peña, who plays Hernández, asks in the film.

Hernández was rejected by the NASA astronaut training program 11 times before being selected at the age of 41 in 2004. Four years later, he was selected as a mission specialist on the STS-128 mission, which was designed to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station.

The film is Mexican director Alejandra Márquez Abella’s first English-language feature. Márquez Abella is the recent winner of an Ariel Award for best picture for her film “Northern Skies Over Empty Space.”

Two people sitting
Hernández and Marquez Abella sit for an interview.
(Nalani Hernandez-Melo / For De Los)

Ahead of its release on Prime Video, Hernández and Márquez Abella spoke to De Los about what the film means to them.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

José, how did it feel to share your story about getting to space?

Hernández: I feel very humbled by the fact that there’s a whole movie being portrayed about my life. I look at it as an opportunity to be able to inspire and empower people that see the movie. The moral of the story is it doesn’t matter where you started, it matters where you point yourself towards and where you end up.

Alejandra, how did it feel to tell Hernández’s story?

Márquez Abella: I feel so privileged that I came to this project not only because I think it’s a marvelous story, but because it actually changed my own perception about myself. I was coming to my first English-language feature and I was coming to the studio system. I reminded myself that José had gone through that going into NASA, which is just a small difference. It was comforting. It made me feel confident.

What elements did you appreciate the most during the filming?

Hernández: What I appreciate the most about what Alejandra did is that she didn’t make it about me. It wasn’t about José Hernández. She made it about a journey of a family, of your significant other, of your community.


If one of those key people did not do what they did in that movie, there’s no way I would have been selected. You start off with Miss Young, she changed the trajectory of the whole family and convinced my parents to stay in one place.

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There’s no way I could have become an astronaut had my dad not given me that five-ingredient recipe that Alejandra masterfully sprinkles across the movie. I wouldn’t have been an astronaut had my boss, knowing he was going to lose me, say “You gotta go and apply to this Russian job,” I wouldn’t have made it.

Had my wife not asked the question: “What do they have that you don’t have?” I wouldn’t have made it. So it’s a collective effort where we all contributed and we finally got selected. I say we because it was everybody.

A man poses for a photo
“A Million Miles Away” is Hernández’s personal story about becoming one of the few Latino astronauts to serve NASA.
(Nalani Hernandez-Melo / For De Los)

What do you hope that people take away from this film?

Márquez Abella: José became an astronaut because he was a migrant farm worker, not in spite of it. He had a set of abilities like resilience, work ethic and the community standing by each other. You carry that in your background and that’s what makes you succeed. It’s not against you, it’s for you.

A woman poses for a photo
“A Million Miles Away” film director Alejandra Márquez Abella.
(Nalani Hernandez-Melo / For De Los)

How was your experience doing an English-language feature?

Márquez Abella: It was very different. I think I like to make films about despicable people, and this is not the case, for once in my life. And that was a challenge for me, because I had to honor this man, and I had to elevate his story, and I had to bring justice to everything that he provoked and he signifies. And of course, it was my first English-language, big budget, and everything that came around that was super different.

What went into the decision to focus less on trauma and more on celebration?

Márquez Abella: I think people think that you have to shock an audience to make a difference or to make things change.

We should keep looking for new ways of communicating our existence as a community. I mean, you have to denounce a lot of things that happen and you have to speak up about a hundred things that happen every day to our community, to ourselves. But you have to celebrate as well, the good things and the things that happen because we are who we are. And I think José’s story is emblematic of that.

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Sept. 15, 2023

What was it like to go through this experience of becoming an astronaut and still be very present in your family life?


Hernández: Too bad we didn’t have more time for the story because I would have loved to cover the portion when I decided to leave NASA.

When I came back from space, they retired the space shuttle fleet. So the only game in town was to train on a Russian vehicle and go on a Russian vehicle to the International Space Station. And since I had traveled to Russia before, I was one of the first ones being assigned. Then I read the fine print and it said it’s three years of training in Russia and not continuous.

It’s about 4 1/2 years where you’re going to be gone, not sleeping in your bed for about 90% of the time. And I’ve seen my colleagues do it, I’ve seen their divorce rates, infidelity, those types of things.

I looked at my kids. And I said, ‘By the time I’m finished, my 15-year-old is going to be 20 years old.’ I would have missed everything. My girls, their proms, their softball games, soccer games. I said that’s a line I can’t cross. Even though I fought so much to get selected to NASA and be part of NASA, as Latinos, you know, we pick family first, don’t we?

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That’s when I decided to leave NASA.

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So has your dream evolved now?


Hernández: Yeah, absolutely. My whole goal in this stage of life was that I have to get my kids through college.

Life comes full circle now. They say you could take a kid out of the farm, but not the farm out of the kid. I have my own vineyard and I work it with my father. It’s the best six years I spent with my father in terms of quality time. He’s taught me how to manage a vineyard. I have my own line of wines, Tierra Luna Cellars. You gotta keep moving, gotta keep putting goals in front of you. Porque si no, you stagnate and that’s not good. You always have to be aspiring to do something.

'A Million Miles Away'

Rating: PG, for thematic elements and language

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: In select theaters and streaming on Prime Video