Asian Americans in Aviation and Space

Asian Americans have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to flight and space exploration, often despite overwhelming obstacles. Learn about the inspiring people who stood in the face of adversity and paved the way for all people to fly.

In The Air

A woman stands in front of a propeller.
Katherine Cheung

Katherine Cheung was born in China and moved to California at age 17 to study music. Her father would take her to the airport to practice driving a car, and she became fascinated with flying. Cheung earned her aviation license in 1932, becoming the first woman pilot of Chinese descent to earn a pilot's license in the United States.

She started performing aerobatics at fairs and air shows in California. In 1935, Cheung obtained her international flight license, and in 1936 she became a U.S. citizen. After Japan invaded China in 1937, she traveled to Chinese American communities across the country, raising more than $7,000 to buy a Ryan ST-A plane, which she planned to fly to China and use to train volunteer pilots. However, on the day she was accepting the aircraft from a group of her benefactors at Dycer field, her cousin crashed the aircraft, ending his life and Cheung's dream of training Chinese pilots.

Ben Kuroki in uniform
Ben Kuroki

After Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps. His parents had come to the United States from Japan, but Kuroki slipped through the filter that placed all Japanese American enlistees in segregated units. He became a gunner in a B-24 squadron based in Europe. He served with distinction and completed 30 combat missions, more than the standard full tour of 25. Kuroki returned to the fight by serving another full tour of duty as a B-29 gunner in the Pacific. He was the only Japanese American to serve in air combat in the Pacific, and one of very few soldiers at all to have fought in both the European and Pacific theaters.

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In Space

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Ellison Onizuka

Ellison S. (El) Onizuka was the first person of Asian-Pacific heritage to be selected into the astronaut corps for NASA.

He had been born in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii, on June 24, 1946, of Japanese-American parents. Onizuka served active duty with the Air Force from 1970 to 1978 when he was selected as a NASA astronaut. He flew as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle in 1985. Tragically, he died in the Challenger launch accident in 1986 (STS 51-L mission) before reaching space a second time. 

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams has spent more than 321 days in space and completed seven spacewalks during two extended missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Hear about her experiences and insights.

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren talks with students and answers their questions. Watch until the end when he is surprised with a very special guest.

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Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla was the first woman of Indian origin to become a NASA astronaut and fly on space missions.

Born and educated in India (Karnal, Punjab), she came to the United States for graduate education in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) and the University of Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in 1988, she began work at NASA's Ames Research Center in computational fluid dynamics. Selected into the astronaut corps in 1994, she first flew as a mission specialist and robotic arm operator for the STS-87 microgravity research mission on Columbia in 1997. Her second flight on Columbia, the STS-107 research mission in 2003, ended tragically when the damaged orbiter disintegrated during its return through the atmosphere and the entire crew perished. 

And Beyond

A man in a Star Trek uniform stares at the camera.
George Takei

When George Takei debuted as astroscientist-turned-helmsman Lieutenant Sulu on Star Trek, he made history as the first Asian American to play a major, nonstereotyped character on an American television show. 

Since then, George Takei has embraced the Star Trek philosophy of diversity and social justice, advocating for LGBT rights and sharing his experience in the Japanese-American incarceration camps during World War II.