Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: Ellison S. Onizuka, Space Pioneer and Hero

Ellison Shoji Onizuka, who became the first Asian American to travel into outer space, was born in the community of Kealakekua on the Big Island of Hawaii in 1946. After earning both a B.S. and M.S. in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Onizuka entered active duty with the U.S. Air Force. He served in that military branch as both a flight test engineer and test pilot.

In 1978, Onizuka was accepted into NASA’s astronaut program. He completed an evaluation and training period at the agency the following year. Onizuka’s pioneering space mission occurred in January 1985 as a member of the five-person crew on the third flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Since Onizuka had grown up in Hawaii playing under coffee trees, he made it a point to bring freeze-dried coffee from the Aloha State with him on the mission. Onizuka and his fellow crew members returned to Kennedy Space Center after 48 orbits around the Earth and approximately 74 hours in space.

A year later, Onizuka was assigned to take part in what was supposed to be his second spaceflight. He was one of the seven crew members for the mission on the Space Shuttle Challenger that took off from Kennedy Space Center on the morning of January 28, 1986. Tragically, however, Challenger was destroyed just 73 seconds after launch when a flame jet leaking from a solid rocket booster ruptured the liquid hydrogen fuel tank. Onizuka and the other six crew members were killed.

“They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths,” said President Ronald Reagan in an address to the nation later that day. “They wished to serve, and they did . . . They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.”

Onizuka was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Meal of Honor. Other honors include having a crater on the Moon and also an asteroid named after him. Earlier this year, an airport near where Onizuka was born and raised in Hawaii was renamed in his memory.

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