By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
A replica of the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Little Tokyo on Tuesday morning.
The 1/10th-scale reinforced fiberglass model, which has stood on a pedestal in Weller Court for more than 20 years, was hoisted by a crane and placed on a flatbed truck. Over the next three months, the model will undergo much-needed repairs at the Scale Model Company in Hawthorne, where it was created.
The shuttle initially did not budge, possibly due to rust buildup in the support columns, but it eventually came loose and was held aloft, looking as if it was about to fly toward City Hall. The model itself weighs about 500 pounds, but the steel posts that extend from the booster rockets into the pedestal bring the total to 2,000 pounds.
The real Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in January 1986, taking the lives of seven crew members, including Ellison Onizuka, the first Japanese American in space. Little Tokyo’s merchants supported the construction of the monument, which includes plaques telling Onizuka’s story in English and Japanese. A dedication ceremony was held in October 1990 with several dignitaries in attendance, such as Mayor Tom Bradley and shuttle astronauts from Japan, including Chiaki Mukai, the first Japanese woman in space.
Isao Hirai, president of the Scale Model Company, was commissioned to build the model and will oversee the repairs. He worked with Rockwell Corporation (now Boeing), which built the shuttle. “This was a precise replica of Challenger,” he said, adding that he also made two models at 1/25th scale, one of which is at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park. The other is at his shop.
He expects to be finished by mid-June, “unless something drastic happens.” A rededication ceremony is planned for June 24, Onizuka’s birthday. He died at 39 and would have turned 65 this year. The Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Board, which also sponsors the annual Space Science Day for local students, plans to raise $70,000 for the refurbishment project.
Although the model has held up pretty well — “We gave a guarantee for 10 years and it lasted for 20-some years, so that’s not bad” — Hirai said there is much to be done, including checking the joints, repainting, and making the thrusters look more “like real engines.”
At some point, he said, the model was repainted without his supervision. “We’re going to put it back in its correct state. The problem (is that) we painted this with graffiti-proof paint and they painted on top of that. That’s why it’s peeling off … Now I have a double problem. We have to remove their paint and we have to remove our graffiti-proof paint to be able to be finished.”
Hirai, who has followed the shuttle program since the beginning and recently witnessed the launching of Atlantis on what may be its final flight, pointed out that the shuttles are not identical. “Each shuttle has a different color scheme because of different colors they use for the tiles. Each time a shuttle comes back, they see weak points of the shuttle and they add black tiles, the strongest one … Columbia and Challenger (had) the most complicated tile system.”
In addition to specifications from the manufacturer, Hirai studied photos of the Challenger taken just before it lifted off for the last time.
Hirai’s company makes a wide variety of models but is particularly known for its work in the field of aerospace with NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cal Tech, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. Rather than the model kits sold in stores, “we make toys for engineers,” he said. Recent projects include the Mars Exploration Rover and the Mars Science Laboratory.
A native of Sapporo, Hirai lived in Brazil and Venezuela before moving to the U.S. in 1966. Since becoming president of the Scale Model Company in 1974, he has made models for museums around the world, including the Smithsonian. His wife, Brigitta, is the company’s publicist.