Welcome Home, Challenger


A crane lifts up the refurbished Challenger model to be placed atop the memorial to astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka in Little Tokyo on Thursday. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)



A day before Friday’s final launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, Little Tokyo welcomed the return of its own space shuttle following a three-month restoration.

A red flatbed semitruck brought the 2,000-pound model from Scale Model Company in Hawthorne by surface streets back to Weller Court, where its creator Isao Hirai waited to supervise the installation. He said that he was relieved, but also a little sad to be finished with the restoration.

“I’m so used to seeing it when I wake up, but it is good to be here,” Hirai said, gesturing to the open plaza where the memorial to Ellison Onizuka and the crew of Challenger has stood since 1990.

“While I was working I had a few calls asking, ‘Where is the shuttle?’ That gave me a good feeling that people miss that it is not here.”

The restored shuttle now glistens with new paint that is an exact match to the specifications of the Challenger on its fateful final mission on Jan. 28, 1986, when it exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven crew members. Hirai noted that the most important changes were made to the interior of the model.

“The orbiter itself, everything is perfect, just we stripped it to the ground and used new paint,” said Hirai. “The external tank and booster was in bad condition so we fixed it inside and out, so now it’s in perfect condition.”

A small crowd of onlookers took photos on cellphones and waited in the humid afternoon heat as crews

The refurbished Onizuka Memorial. An official rededication is planned for Aug. 13.

went to retrieve another strap for the crane that would hoist the model back atop the Onizuka Memorial. Allen Murakoshi and Herb Omura of the Astronaut Onizuka Memorial Board were there to watch the installation. The refurbishment cost an estimated $70,000, which the committee is now seeking donations to help offset expenses.

“The job (Hirai) has done is really eye-opening. It’s going to look much better than it did originally,” said Murakoshi.

“Hopefully this monument will brighten up the area and it will attract young students so they can see the tribute to Ellison Onizuka, the Challenger crew, NASA and the space program. Hopefully we’ll have these young kids interested in the space program because they are the future.”

Shortly after 3 p.m., two hours after the installation was to take place, the crane crew began lifting the model from the flatbed truck, eliciting some “woahs!” from the small crowd as it swayed in the air in front of the Rafu Shimpo office.

Fernando Guerrero and Salvador Hernandez, who work with Hirai, climbed atop the memorial and gently guided the shuttle toward the pedestal. As the crane operator made the final adjustment, the shuttle finally came to rest at 3:11 p.m. to applause and cheers.

Matt Azali, an urban planner with CalTrans, was among the people watching the installation. He recalled watching shuttle missions including Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut who flew aboard Challenger on June 18, 1983.

Isao Hirai supervises the installation of the shuttle model.

“I know this area used to be where there were old stagecoaches where they would load goods for ships in San Pedro and they renamed in Onizuka Street. I think it’s really good and having monuments like this it prevents vandalism and it gives the community a sense of pride,” Azali said.

An official rededication ceremony is being planned for Aug. 13 by the Onizuka Memorial Board. Murakoshi, a retired Boeing engineer, said that even as the shuttle program is winding down, he looked forward to the next phase in America’s space program.

“The thing that people should walk away with is that although this is the end of the shuttle program, it’s just the beginning of space exploration,” Murakoshi said.

View the video- Shuttle Memorial Returns to Little Tokyo