Soccer Ball Recovered from Challenger Flies to Space Station

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A soccer ball originally packed onto space shuttle Challenger in 1986 is now orbiting the Earth on board the International Space Station, 31 years later.

The soccer ball was signed and presented to NASA astronaut Ellison Onizuka by soccer players – including his daughter Janelle – from Clear Lake High School in Houston, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Onizuka was one of seven astronauts on board Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, when it exploded shortly after liftoff.

Following the accident, the ball was recovered from wreckage that fell into the Atlantic Ocean and returned to the high school, where it has been on display for the past three decades. Its history had begun to fade into obscurity when Principal Karen Engle learned of its origin.

Soon after, Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough, whose son attends Clear Lake High School, offered to carry a memento to the space station on the school’s behalf, and she had the idea to send the soccer ball into space.

Ellison Onizuka

Kimbrough, who arrived at the ISS in October, snapped the above photo of the ball floating in front of the station’s Cupola window in advance of Challenger anniversary (Jan. 28) and NASA’s Day of Remembrance, which also honors the crews of Apollo 1 and the shuttle Columbia. After getting permission from the school and Onizuka family, he decided to share it via social media.

“I’m honored to be a part of bringing this small piece of Challenger’s legacy to the International Space Station,” Kimbrough said. “Remembering the Challenger crew is important to all of us in the astronaut corps, and all of us at NASA, and I hope that when the ball is returned to Clear Lake High School, it will be a reminder for generations to come.”

“The soccer ball in many ways has continued the mission my father embarked upon so many years ago,” Janelle Onizuka said in a statement. “It has continued to travel and explore space while inspiring so many through its history. I am grateful for the memories and future of this one special item that touched my dad and me, along with so many others.”

The soccer ball is slated to be returned to Earth and the school on an upcoming cargo flight.

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