Onizuka Remembered on 30th Anniversary of Challenger Disaster


Ellison Onizuka

Ellison Onizuka

Jan. 28 will mark 30 years since the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, taking the lives of all seven crew members.

Among those who perished was U.S. Air Force Col. Ellison Onizuka, who was born in 1946 in Kealakekua, Kona and graduated from Konawaena High School. The Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center was established at Kona International Airport in his memory to further understanding of space and science. The center will be open to commemorate the 30th anniversary.

But according to West Hawaii Today, the center will close its doors at the end of March, to be replaced by a new gateway, part of a multi-million-dollar renovation at the airport. The Hawaii Department of Transportation offered to construct a new building for the center across the street, but after considering four different sites, the governing board decided that they would not be able to afford the higher operational costs of a much larger building.

Chairman of the board and the astronaut’s brother, Claude Onizuka, said the center has welcomed about 22,000 members of the public each year, including about 8,000 students.

“What Ellison had really wanted to do was share his knowledge and dreams,” he said. “I think the center has done that. But things change, and I think now the time has come for the center to close.”

The crew of the Challenger (from left): Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Francis 'Dick' Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka.

The crew of the Challenger (from left): Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ron McNair, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka.

• In Hilo, the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) and Keaau High School will host a ceremony on Jan. 28 at the school. It will include an unveiling of the students’ recently reconstructed Space Shuttle Flight Simulator for the 30th anniversary.

“Although Onizuka lost his life, his legacy lives on today,” PISCES said in a statement. “He is remembered as the first Asian American and first person of Japanese ancestry to reach space. He was also Hawaii’s first astronaut. Onizuka Air Force Station in California, the Onizuka Village family housing on Hickam Air Force Base, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy on Mauna Kea, and the Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center at the Kona International Airport were named in his honor. Two astronomical features were also named after him, including an asteroid and a crater on the moon.”

PISCES Executive Director Rob Kelso was inspired to pay homage to Onizuka and loved ones with a special ceremony this year. Having worked closely with him during a shuttle mission in 1985 that involved a secret military payload, Kelso described Onizuka as “a dear friend.”

The event will feature a performance by Keaau High School’s taiko drummers, a presentation by the U.S. Air Force Color Guard, speeches and more.

• The 16th Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day is set for Jan. 30 at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. The event is for students in grades 4 to 12, parents, and teachers, and will include a tribute to Onizuka and his crewmates, Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.

Ellison Onizuka eating with chopsticks during his first shuttle flight aboard the Discovery in 1985.

Ellison Onizuka eating with chopsticks during his first shuttle flight aboard the Discovery in 1985.

• At University of Colorado-Boulder, alumni Onizuka and Kalpana Chawla, astronauts who died in space shuttle accidents 17 years apart, will be remembered on Jan. 30. Chawla and six crewmates died when the Columbia disintegrated during Earth atmosphere re-entry over Texas and Louisiana on Feb. 1, 2003.

CU-Boulder cadets from the Air Force ROTC and the Arnold Air Society will hold the memorial for Onizuka, Chawla and the 12 other NASA astronauts who perished in the two disasters.

The event will begin with an invocation, a speech by Squadron Commander Courtney Geisert and a presentation of colors. A procession to the Columbia Memorial next to Fiske Planetarium will follow. The procession will continue to the Challenger Onizuka Memorial on the north side of the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Wreaths will be laid at both memorials, and 14 roses will be laid at the Onizuka Memorial in honor of the 14 lost astronauts, each of whom will be commemorated. Onizuka and Chawla each made two shuttle flights.

Onizuka received his bachelor’s and masters’ degree from the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences (AES) in 1969. Chawla received her doctorate from AES in 1998.

Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla

“The annual memorial to our two fallen CU-Boulder astronauts allows us to mourn their loss and at the same time remember their many contributions to the university,” said Professor Penina Axelrad, chair of AES. “Both brought enthusiasm and excellence to our department as students, returning regularly to campus as NASA astronauts and connecting with faculty, staff and students on a very personal level. They were true pioneers whose courage and vision inspires CU aerospace students to explore.”

There were several CU-Boulder payloads and experiments on Challenger, including the Spartan Halley satellite that was to gather data on the legendary comet and a sophisticated camera system to image the comet from inside the space vehicle.

In 1986, Professor David Klaus of aerospace engineering was working as a NASA shuttle launch controller at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc. “We were looking at the images and telemetry during the Challenger launch, and it was immediately clear that something bad had happened,” he said.

What was to be a future space shuttle launch and landing site for NASA, the Shuttle Launch Facility at Vandenberg, was shut down after the Challenger explosion.

“When I pause to remember my friends who perished with the Challenger and Columbia, I also think about their legacy,” said AES Scholar in Residence and former NASA astronaut Jim Voss, who flew five space shuttle missions between 1991 and 2001. “The changes that resulted from those tragic losses made flying in space safer for all who followed and helped us continue to explore and discover.”

Professor Emeriti Robert Culp of AES was Onizuka’s advisor during his years at CU-Boulder. “Ellison would come to my office, and we would talk about aerospace for hours,” said Culp. “After he became an astronaut he would come back periodically and visit with us and give talks to our students. Students love to talk to astronauts, of course, and he was always interested in helping the university in any way he could.”

Chawla had two advisors while conducting her doctoral research at CU-Boulder: Her first advisor, Professor C.Y. Chow, and her second advisor, Culp. “She was a bubbly, friendly and a very smart person,” said Culp. “Everyone enjoyed being around her.”

She returned to CU-Boulder after she became a NASA astronaut, both to visit and to train on state-of-the-art hardware and experiments designed and built by faculty and students at BioServe Space Technologies. BioServe, a center in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering department, regularly flew space shuttle payloads during the lifespan of the NASA program and continues to fly payloads to the International Space Station, completing its 50th mission last month.

Klaus, a former associate director of BioServe, recalled that most of the Columbia crew, including Chawla, were on campus about a year before the accident, working with BioServe equipment and experiments that they would operate in space. Klaus said he has fond memories of the BioServe team and the Columbia astronauts having dinner together in downtown Boulder after one of the training sessions.

Culp remembers one of his final visits with Chawla when they designed a CU flag for her take up as a memento on the ill-fated Columbia mission. “It was almost too much for us, first losing Ellison and then losing Kalpana,” he said. “But all of us who knew them have nothing but great memories.”

There are 18 CU-Boulder astronaut-affiliates who have flown in space.

Ellison Onizuka/Challenger monument in Little Tokyo. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Ellison Onizuka/Challenger monument in Little Tokyo’s Weller Court. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

• NASA will pay will tribute to the crews of Apollo 1 and space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, as well as other NASA colleagues, during the agency’s Day of Remembrance on Jan. 28. Day of Remembrance honors members of the NASA family who lost their lives while furthering the cause of exploration and discovery.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, and other agency senior officials will hold an observance and wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Various NASA centers will also hold remembrance events for employees and the families of those lost in service to America’s space program.

At 10 a.m., NASA Television will provide live coverage of a wreath-laying ceremony at the Space Mirror Memorial located at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The observance is hosted by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, a private, not-for-profit organization. It built and maintains the Space Mirror Memorial, which was dedicated in 1991 to honor all astronauts who lost their lives on missions or during training. It has been designated a National Memorial by Congress.

Kennedy Space Center is also home to the “Forever Remembered” exhibit, a tribute to the crews of the Challenger and Columbia that opened in June 2015. Alcoves for each of the 14 crew members contain memorabilia reflecting their lives.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will observe the Day of Remembrance with a candle-lighting ceremony for center employees, as well as a public event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Marshall’s official visitor center.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will hold an event for employees that includes placing flowers at the Apollo, Challenger and Columbia Trees at the center.

In partnership with the Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana, NASA’s Glenn Research Center will host former astronaut Greg Harbaugh for the opening of the exhibit “Inspiring the Future — The Legacy of Exploration,” at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.

The agency also is paying tribute to its fallen astronauts with special online content available beginning Wednesday, Jan. 27, at www.nasa.gov/dor. For NASA Television downlink information, schedule information and streaming video, visit www.nasa.gov/nasatv.

Challenger memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Challenger memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.



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