A Modern Niesi Hero – Ellison Onizuka (1946-1986)

Ellison Onizuka- Photo Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
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Ellison Onizuka- Photo Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

BY DUANE A VACHON. On January 28, 1986, millions of television screens around the world flashed the same horrific sequence. As the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger was repeated over and over, a profound silence followed in classrooms, living rooms and places of worship.


America had lost a piece of itself, and the Japanese-American community had lost a hero. The white-plumed trails from the Challenger’s pair of booster rockets hung like a dark cloud over an entire nation.

American astronaut Ellison Onizuka was one of the seven crew members who died in the 1986 explosion of the “Challenger” space shuttle. The first American of Asian heritage to reach space, Onizuka had harbored a desire to become an astronaut since his childhood. “He encouraged the freedom to dream,” his wife Lorna told People, “and the commitment to making those dreams come true.”

Onizuka was born on June 24, 1946, in Kealakekua, on the Kona coast of Hawaii’s main island. His grandparents had come to Hawaii from Japan in the early 1900s to work as indentured laborers on the island’s sugar plantations. Onizuka was the third of four children born to his mother Mitsue, who ran a small store in Keopu, and his father Masimutu. Keopu was a coffee – growing area, and Onizuka earned extra money for the household as a child by picking coffee beans.

Onizuka was fascinated by space flight from an early age. The year he turned 15, the pioneer Mercury mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) put an American astronaut in space for the first time. Many among this early generation of astronauts became celebrated heroes in the era, but they were exclusively white males. “Ellison always had it in his mind to become an astronaut but was too embarrassed to tell anyone,” his mother said in a Time magazine tribute from Paul Gray. “When he was growing up, there were no Asian astronauts, no black astronauts, just white ones. His dream seemed too big.”

Onizuka completed his astronaut training in 1979, and by 1982 was serving on the launch support crews for the space shuttle flights of the Columbia, then the Challenger and Discovery crafts which followed. These shuttles rocketed into space with increasing regularity from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the first half of the decade, and Onizuka waited to be selected for a flight himself. A few notable firsts in American space history occurred while he waited: the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, went aloft in June of 1983, and two months later Guion Bluford became the first African American astronaut in space. As Onizuka neared forty, he worried little about being bypassed, for he knew his space – flight career could continue well into middle age.

Onizuka became the first Asian American in space in January of 1985 when he joined the crew of the Discovery for the shuttle program’s first Department of Defense mission. The trip also made him the first astronaut from Hawaii as well as the first Buddhist in space. The Discovery circled the Earth 48 times, and Onizuka was awed by both the view and the technology. “You’re really aware that you’re on top of a monster, you’re totally at the mercy of the vehicle,” New York Times journalist Pauline Yoshihashi quoted him as telling a friend. Still, he was thrilled by finally achieving his childhood goal.

Onizuka’s home was in Houston, where he lived with his wife, Lorna Leiko Yoshida, a fellow Hawaiian of Japanese ancestry whom he married in 1969. They had two daughters, Janelle and Darien, and visited family in Hawaii regularly.

Onizuka was selected to fly on a second shuttle mission slated for early 1986. This Challenger flight was to be the vessel’s 10th, and headed by flight commander Dick Scobee. Other crew members included pilot Michael Smith, electrical engineers Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik, physicist Ronald McNair, and the first civilian American in space, Christa McAuliffe.  A Concord, New Hampshire high school teacher chosen from among from some 11,000 applicants to be America’s first “Teacher in Space,” McAuliffe’s presence excited great public interest in this particular Challenger flight, and a group of Concord students traveled to Florida to watch the launch from special viewing stands, a contingent that included the educator’s nine – year – old son and six – year – old daughter.

McAuliffe’s role aboard the Challenger was to teach two classroom lessons from space with the help of video feeds. Onizuka’s job was to film Haley‘s comet, which had not been seen since 1910, with a handheld camera. The launch of the Challenger, originally set for January 20, was delayed several days from the Kennedy Space Center pad due to weather and technical issues. It finally fired its rockets on Tuesday, January 28, and went aloft as NASA’s 25th shuttle mission. Initially, it appeared to be a successful launch, traveling at 1,900 miles per hour and with no sign of trouble, but then a brief flash of orange near where the fuel tank connected to the orbiter became visible, and at 73 seconds after takeoff flames near that seal turned into a fireball that obliterated the view of the craft from the Earth. Communication was instantly lost, and all aboard perished. Onlookers at the Kennedy Space Center watched in horror of what became the worst accident in the history of the U.S. space program to date.

Onizuka was mourned with his six colleagues in a memorial service held several days later at the Kennedy Space Center. His Buddhist beliefs, the head of the Buddhist Churches of America, told Yoshihashi for Onizuka’s New York Times obituary, lent his choice of career an added resonance. “As a test pilot and an astronaut, he had to deal with life and death,” Bishop Seigen Yamoaka told the newspaper. “As long as death is seen as the enemy, you fight it, and become more attached to life. In time, he came to the realization that death is not an enemy to defeat, but a compassionate friend.”

Onizuka is buried in section D, grave number 1 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.