History-Making Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Honored His Japanese, Hawaiian Heritage in Flight

Onizuka died aboard the space shuttle Challenger when it broke apart after takeoff in 1986

Throughout the month of May, NBC Owned Television Stations is profiling members of the AAPI community as part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Ellison Okizuna

Ellison Shoji Onizuka was not only the first Japanese-American astronaut, the first Asian-American and first Buddhist to travel in space -- he was the first Hawaiian too, with Kona coffee to prove it.

Onizuka grew up on the Kona coast of Hawaii, picking beans in the rural community of Kealakekua, and so on his first mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985, he brought freeze-dried coffee with him.

Onizuka would fly only one other mission a year later, as part of the most diverse crew ever picked by NASA. He was on the shuttle Challenger in 1986 when it broke apart 73 seconds after lift off and all seven aboard died. He was 39 years old.

Challenger Crew

'He had it inside of him, like a dream,'' his mother, Mitsue Onizuka, told The New York Times of his desire to go to space. ''We didn't understand it, but he knew what he would do.''

He was proud of his heritage, friends and relatives said. When he traveled to Japan with his mother and family, he visited his family's ancestral shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture to pay his respects, The New York Times reported.

The year before the Challenger flight he presented a medallion with a wisteria blossom, the symbol of the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism, to its abbot, Monshu Koshin Ohtani, the Times wrote. He had worn the medallion on the Discovery mission.

And he would return from visits to Hawaii with pineapples, macadamia nuts and of course Kona coffee.

Onizuka was born in June 1946, and graduated from Konawaena High School in Kealakekua,

Onizuka was driven by a work ethic instilled by his parents, his friends told NBC. He left Hawaii for the University of Colorado at Boulder where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in aerospace engineering. After graduating he attended the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California in August 1974.

Onizuka was selected in 1978 as one of 35 astronauts for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. The competition had been stiff, with 8,000 applicants, and he was the first Japanese American chosen for America’s space program. 

A friend from Edwards Air Force Base in California recalled a comment he made after the Discovery launch. William Scott told The New York Times that Onizuka had said, ’’You're really aware that you're on top of a monster. You're totally at the mercy of the vehicle.''

That mission was America’s first classified manned military space flight, which NBC described as a secretive space flight to launch a payload from the Department of Defense.

After his death, he was celebrated in the United States, in Japan, and in space. 

A memorial to the Challenger was erected in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, in his grandparents’ hometown of Ukiha a bridge was named in his honor, as were an asteroid and a crater on the moon. 

One moment from the Challenger did survive the shuttle’s breakup: a signed soccer ball that Onizuka had brought aboard with him. It was from one of his daughters’ soccer team. It was given to his wife, Lorna, and returned to Clear Lake High School in Texas. But then, in 2016, another astronaut, Shane Kimbrough, brought it to the International Space Station, completing its journey into space, a story told by ESPN.

Okizuna Soccer Ball
A soccer ball originally packed onto space shuttle Challenger in 1986 orbiting the Earth on board the International Space Station in 2016.

After the Challenger disaster, the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial began sponsoring a space science lecture series in California. Today the memorial committee is speaking out against the recent wave of hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander community.

"This organization was founded on the accomplishments and legacy of an Asian American hero,” it says. “We condemn xenophobia and racism, instead, we need to celebrate and honor the AAPI community and other communities of color.”

In 1980, Onizuka spoke to the graduating class of his alma mater, Konawaena High School.

“Your vision is not limited by what your eyes can see, but by what your mind can imagine,” he told the students. “Many things that you take for granted were considered unrealistic dreams by previous generations. If you accept these past accomplishments as commonplace then think of the new horizons that you can explore.”

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