AUSTIN — I didn’t know my tío, Miguel Hernandez, very well growing up.
He lived in Houston, Texas, which, for a Cuban American kid like me growing up in Miami, was as faraway and foreign as Anchorage or Reykjavik. I knew he was my mom’s first cousin and we called him “Chichi.” He would visit Miami at least once a year with his wife, Tere, and two sons, Michael and Jorge Luis, who were slightly older than me. We'd all play baseball or hit the pool together, then they were gone again.
To our family, though, Miguel was a living legend, someone who worked for NASA, lunched with astronauts and met presidents. It wasn’t until much later, however, that I discovered the depth of his role in helping U.S. astronauts reach the moon — and the unlikely path from Havana to Houston that got him there.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — which occurred 50 years ago Saturday — there will be films and forums and well-deserved praise of household names such as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. But a legion of engineers, mathematicians and the occasional Cuban immigrant also helped realize that Herculean feat.
“I never imagined I’d be involved in this type of work,” Miguel told me recently. “But I was always interested in it.”
An eye toward the stars
As a boy growing up in Cuba, he'd rifle through copies of Aviation Week & Space Technology, sparking an early interest in space travel. In 1959, shortly after Fidel Castro took hold of the island and began steering it into Soviet-style communism, a replica of the Soviet Sputnik I — the first satellite to orbit the Earth — arrived on a ship in Havana Harbor. Miguel, then 17, marveled at the polished metal orb with four antennae that could circle the Earth.
As Castro nationalized companies and seized homes, 19-year-old Miguel turned against the government, handing out anti-Castro pamphlets and denouncing the regime. When his activist friends began landing in prison, he fled Cuba, heading first to Miami and later to New York City to live with relatives. He had $100 in his pocket and knew no English. His aunt lent him a coat — two sizes too big — to survive the New York winters.
All it takes is a series of policies: Venezuela was my home, and socialism destroyed it. Slowly, it will destroy America, too.
He worked in the mailroom of American International Underwriters (now AIG) downtown and took English classes at night. But his mind often drifted skyward. On his spare time, he read of how Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in April 1961, followed a few weeks later by American Alan Shepard. He attended the New York City ticker-tape parade for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. He marveled when, soon after, President John Kennedy promised that America would be the first to put a man on the moon.
"I said, 'These people are crazy,'" he said.
When he had learned enough English, Miguel attended the University of Florida, graduating with a mechanical engineering degree. When NASA recruiters visited his campus in 1966, he jumped at the chance to work at the space agency. He was assigned to the newly-opened John F. Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida, training astronauts for the nascent Apollo missions. Miguel and a team of other engineers were tasked with learning all the systems required to propel a man into space and teach them to the astronauts via simulators. His specialty: propulsion and rockets.
A dangerous project
Just a few weeks into his new job, tragedy struck. Miguel watched in horror from the control room as a cabin fire swept the Apollo 1 module during a test launch rehearsal, killing all three astronauts. “That had a terrible impact on everyone,” he said.
The missions continued and by 1969 buzz was mounting for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Miguel was swept up in the fervor. He and his team worked 24-hour shifts, double-checking systems and readying the astronauts to reach the moon. Mike Collins, the lesser known of the three Apollo 11 pilots, was the nicest, Miguel said, though all three — Collins, Aldrin and Armstrong — appreciated and absorbed the training.
"You needed to have the confidence of the astronauts," he said. "You couldn't at any moment tell them something that later turned out to be wrong. That could cost them their lives."
Miguel watched the moon landing like millions of others around the world: on a TV set in his living room with his family — and in complete awe. “It was an accomplishment for the whole world,” he said. “It was something not just that the United States did — it was something the human race did.”
Later that year, Miguel broadcast the Apollo 12 mission in Spanish for La Fabulosa WFAB radio station in Miami. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in the hair-raising rescue of the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, which was nearly stranded in space after an oxygen tank exploded, crippling a key system. In all, he would train astronauts for the Apollo 1, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17 missions, three Skylab space station flights and the first two Space Shuttle missions.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was a sizable puncture in the agency’s color barrier. At a time when racial tensions still flared in the U.S., and the civil rights movement was reaching its apex, Miguel was the only Latino in his department and the only one he knew of at NASA.
He said he never felt discriminated against; everyone was too focused on the missions to care about race or nationalities. Though I believe that’s true, I also think it couldn’t have always been easy being a Cuban émigré in the 1960s, working alongside hyper-intelligent colleagues who didn't look or talk like you and communicating in a language you learned just a few years earlier.
None of that got in his way, of course.
The next generation's frontier
Miguel left NASA in the 1980s and parlayed his unique skill set and experience into a successful business, Hernandez Engineering, that contracted with the space agency for decades. Today, 77 and retired, he travels the world with his wife and enjoys frequent visits from his sons and five grandchildren.
As luck has it, I now live in Austin, a two-hour drive from Houston. I’ve taken my wife and two daughters to visit Miguel at his home in the Houston suburb of Seabrook and at his ranch near College Station. I’ve relished watching him joke with my daughters or cook them dinner or helping them clear brush on his ranch.
My eldest daughter, Elle, 8, recently acquired a tireless fascination with outer space and astronauts and hopes to be the first human on Mars. Miguel has promised her special access to NASA training facilities and introductions to astronauts next time we’re in town, a prospect that makes Elle giggle with delight.
One day, spinning gently in zero gravity in the International Space Station, she’ll peer out a window and look down at Earth and think of those who blazed her trail to the stars.
Rick Jervis is the Austin-based correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Apollo 11 50th anniversary: My immigrant uncle put men on the moon