Remembering Onizuka

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Flowers adorn the Onizuka Memorial in Little Tokyo on Jan. 28, 24 years after the shuttle Challenger disaster.

A wreath of flowers placed at the base of the Onizuka Memorial in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court are a yearly tribute to the Japanese American who perished on the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986.

Ellison Onizuka

Ellison Onizuka was a mission specialist aboard the shuttle Challenger, his second mission to space. Born June 24, 1946, in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii, he was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978.  he completed a 1-year training and evaluation period in August 1979. Onizuka subsequently worked on orbiter test and checkout teams and launch support crews at the Kennedy Space Center for STS-1 and STS-2.

The Sansei first flew as a mission specialist on the Shuttle Discovery on Jan. 24, 1985. During the mission Onizuka was responsible for the primary payload activities, which included the deployment of a modified Inertial Upper Stage (IUS). STS 51-C Discovery completed 48 orbits of the Earth before landing at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on January 27, 1985. With the completion of this flight he logged a total of 74 hours in space.

He died alongside commander Dick Scobee, pilot Michael J. Smith, mission specialists Ronald McNair, Judith Resnick and payload specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, just 73 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.

The Onizuka Memorial in Little Tokyo's Weller Court. (Photo by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

That evening, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation, saying, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

Among the posthumous honors given to Onizuka include the Onizuka Air Force Station in Sunnyvale, Caif., the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center at Kona International Airport in Hawaii, and Onizuka Street in Little Tokyo.

The Little Tokyo community mourned Onizuka, who served as Nisei Week Grand Marshall in 1985. Following his tragic death, local merchants raised funds to build the memorial which pays tribute to the entire Challenger crew. The model of the space shuttle was built by Isao Hirai, president of the Scale Model Company in Hawthorne. The memorial stands as a lasting tribute to the heroism of the first Japanese American in space.

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