By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR
The space shuttle is cleared for landing … well, almost. The 12.5-foot tall model of the Challenger space shuttle has been missing from Little Tokyo since April as it undergoes a much needed refurbishment.
Isao Hirai, president of the Scale Model Company, who built the 1/10th model in 1990 has been repairing the shuttle at his company in Hawthorne. He said the model is scheduled to return to Little Tokyo on June 22, with a rededication ceremony to be held at a later date.
“The condition of the shuttle was worse than expected,” said Hirai, who was in Little Tokyo on Tuesday working on the memorial’s lighting and cleaning the bronze plaque that features bas relief of the Kona, Hawaii-born astronaut.
Twenty years of weathering have taken a toll on the memorial, which pays tribute to astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who perished when the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. The shuttle will be returned to its original glory just in time to witness the ending of the space shuttle program with the launch of shuttle Atlantis, scheduled on July 8.
Lorna Onizuka, wife of Ellison, said that the end of the space program is bittersweet. She works at NASA in support of the Japan Aerospace Exploration and was in Los Angeles in support of the Onizuka Memorial Lecture Series and Space Science Day at El Camino College in April.
“It’s been going on for 30 years,” said Onizuka, who went to the first space shuttle launch in April 1981. “Looking back at incredible things, which we didn’t realize at the time. The shuttle has performed well beyond what we expected it to do. It is bittersweet to see it come to an end, like all good things. But I like to think that the end of something is a space holder for new beginnings.”
She said she would be at the final launch and continues to work with the Japanese astronauts, who she noted call her “Mother.”
“A lot of these astronauts now exceed what the other astronauts did back then, because we have raised the bar for them, and they have not disappointed,” said Onizuka.