It is yet another one of those great stories of a Cuban who escaped the chains of socialism in communist Cuba and went on to realize great achievements in the U.S. and for America. We never tire of them.
My tio’s unlikely journey from communist Cuba to key figure in Apollo 11 moon landing
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.”
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 — 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.
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.
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, 9, 11, 13 and 15 missions.
Read the entire story HERE.