HONOLULU (KHON2) — For NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, the year 1986 was shaping up to be the most ambitious one yet, with plans that called for up to 15 missions, including one that would send the first teacher in space to conduct lessons from orbit.
But 73 seconds after liftoff, when a booster engine failed, something went terribly wrong.
Controllers lost all telemetry from the Challenger space shuttle, stunning the nation with a fireball displaying on their television screens. The Jan. 28, 1986 disaster became the first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft in flight.
All seven crew members were killed on board, including Hawaii astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka, who was also the first Asian American to fly into space. He was 39.
Onizuka was born on June 24, 1946, in Kealakekua, Kona. He graduated from Konawaena High School with honors in 1964 where he was active in the 4-H Club, student council, National Honors Society and yearbook club; he also played varsity basketball and baseball. In 1969, he received his master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. In 1970, he joined the U.S. Air Force where participated in flight test programs and systems safety engineering.
In 1978, against a a stiff competition of approximately 8,000 applicants, Onizuka was selected as one of 35 astronauts for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, becoming the first Japanese American to participate.
On Jan. 24, 1985, Onizuka became the first Asian astronaut to venture into space as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery — America’s first classified manned military space flight. He was then selected for Challenger Flight 51-L, along with six other crew members: Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair and Mike Smith.
During the six-day mission, the crew was to deploy a large communications satellite, as well as deploy and retrieve an astronomy payload to study Halley’s Comet.
Onizuka’s daughter Janelle, who was a soccer player at Clear Lake High School, gave him a ball signed by her teammates to take with him to space. After the explosion, Onizuka’s personal preference kit was found, including the ball. It was returned to his family who donated it to the school where it remains on display.
In a speech to inspire future generations, Onizuka said this to the 1980 graduating class at his alma mater:
Every year at the end of January, NASA holds a Day of Remembrance to honor the astronauts who died in the Challenger accident, as well as the lives lost in the Apollo 1 fire and the Columbia accident. It’s a time to not only reflect on what happened in the past but also to ensure that future tragedies can be prevented.
In the words of Onizuka: “Let it be that the people who make this world run, whose lives can be termed successful, whose names will go down in the history books, are not the cynics, the critics, or the armchair quarterbacks. They are the adventurists, the explorers, and doers of this world. When they see a wrong or problem, they do something about it. When they see a vacant place in our knowledge, they work to fill that void… Make your life count – and the world will be a better place because you tried.”