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Number 1 Shimbun

Ellison Onizuka—NASA Astronaut

No1-2018-05 03

Ellison Onizuka—NASA Astronaut
by Charles Pomeroy

Displaying a model of NASA’s space shuttle is United States Air Force Major Ellison Onizuka at an FCCCJ professional luncheon on June 21, 1983. Naoaki Usui (McGraw-Hill), standing in for FCCJ president Karel van Wolferen (NRC Handelsblad), lends an approving smile to his description of the shuttle.

A Japanese-American who had been selected for NASA’s shuttle program in 1978, Onizuka was to become in January of 1985 the first person of Asian ancestry flown into space when he crewed as a “mission specialist” on Space Shuttle Discovery. A year later, on January 28, 1986, he was to die along with six other crew members in the shocking explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger.

Although he would die at age 39, Ellison Shoji Onizuka achieved much in his short life. Born on June 24, 1946, in Kona, Hawaii, and raised in a rural setting, he excelled as a youth in scholastics and sports as well as farm-focused 4-H Club activities and the Boy Scouts. He graduated from high school with honors in 1964. He then attended the University of Colorado, where he earned a BS degree in aeronautical engineering in 1968 and an MA in aerospace engineering in 1969. Onizuka became a pilot after joining the Air Force in January of 1970 and within four years had become a test pilot. That, in turn, led to his selection in 1978 as an astronaut candidate for NASA’s space shuttle program, one of 35 selected from 8,000 applicants.

Fame, and an upgrade in rank to lieutenant colonel, came to Onizuka following the successful Discovery mission in 1985, a classified military space flight. That, in turn, led to his selection for the more civilian-centered Challenger mission, which included Christa McAuliffe as the first school teacher in space among the six other crew members of varied backgrounds representative of America. Unusual cold weather apparently caused the failure of vulnerable rubber sealants on the rocket boosters, which resulted in the explosion 73 seconds after launch. Challenger was torn apart and the lives of its seven crew members were lost on that fateful day.

Posthumously, Ellison Onizuka was promoted to colonel and awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, adding to his long list of awards for earlier achievements. To honor his memory, a U.S. Air Force station, an asteroid and a crater on the moon as well as a number of educational facilities were named after him. He is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.


Charles Pomeroy is editor of Foreign Correspondents in Japan, a history of the club that is available at the front desk.


Published in: May 2018

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