When NASA astronaut Ellison Onizuka rode Space Shuttle Discovery into space on shuttle mission STS-51-C in 1985, he made history on several counts. He was the first Asian American astronaut, the first astronaut of Japanese descent, the first person from Hawai‘i in space, and the first Buddhist in space.

Onizuka was born in Kealakekua, in rural Kona on the island of Hawai‘i, in 1946, before the related archipelago became the state of Hawai‘i. His parents were second-generation Japanese Americans who lived in the coffee-growing region of Kona, where their four children attended school. Onizuka was active in sports and rural youth organizations—4-H and Future Farmers of America—and in Boy Scouts, earning the high rank of Eagle Scout. He dreamed of flying into the starry sky and wanted to be a pilot. He came to the mainland after graduating with honors from high school in 1964 and earned both bachelor and master of science degrees in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado. Onizuka also participated in U.S. Air Force ROTC.

Official NASA portrait of Ellison Onizuka.

Upon completing his studies, Onizuka entered active duty in the Air Force, serving first as a flight test engineer and test pilot at McClellan Air Force Base in California. Four years later, he was selected to attend the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. After completion of the course, he was assigned to remain there at the Flight Test Center as a flight test engineer, instructor, and manager. Onizuka rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel during his time on active duty.

NASA selected Onizuka as a mission specialist in the first group of astronauts recruited for the space shuttle era. As a member of the 1978 class known as the Thirty-Five New Guys or Group 8, he trained with fellow scientists and engineers, America’s first women and African American astronauts, and the new generation of military test pilots. Together they would carry out a variety of missions on the new spaceplane meant to make spaceflight more routine and practical.

His first flight in January 1985 was a classified mission for the Department of Defense, so little is known about its purpose and Onizuka’s specific role, other than that the mission was successful. All five members of the crew were military officers, and it was one of three flights that included a crewmate directly from the Department of Defense rather than NASA. Onizuka logged 74 hours in space on this mission.

Onizuka in orbit on STS-51C in 1985.

Although some astronauts waited two or more years for a second mission assignment, Onizuka’s next flight occurred just a year later in January 1986. STS-51L on Challenger was a satellite deployment and science mission with a crew of seven, including a teacher as the first “ordinary citizen” to fly in space and a corporate engineer flying to oversee his company’s experiment. Four of the crewmembers were 1978 classmates, and another was from the 1980 class. At the time, they were the most diverse space crew to fly for the United States, including two women and one African American man along with Onizuka.

The mission ended just 73 seconds after liftoff when the entire Space Shuttle vehicle self-destructed in view of everyone watching, long before reaching space. The horrific spectacle was a tragedy for the crew who died aboard the Shuttle, their families, friends, colleagues, NASA, and the nation. Onizuka, who was 39 years old at the time of his death, was posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. His gravesite is at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Oahu. In 2004 President George W. Bush awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor to Onizuka and his Challenger crewmates.

Months after the tragedy, as debris from Challenger was found and processed, personal possessions were returned to the crew’s families. The Onizukas received a memento with special meaning. He had taken on the flight a soccer ball inscribed with good wishes and signatures from his daughter’s Clear Lake High School soccer team, which he helped coach. Stowed in a bag inside a locker in the crew cabin, the ball had been found in the wreckage. The Onizuka family presented the ball to the school. Thirty years later in 2016 astronaut Shane Kimbrough, whose son attended the same school, took the ball on his expedition to the International Space Station and later returned it to the school, where it remains on display. Symbolically, this flight seemed to complete Onizuka’s too-short final mission.

Onizuka’s soccer ball on the International Space Station in 2017.

Onizuka’s colleagues remember him as a hard worker who strove for excellence and wanted to be a role model to encourage young people to dream and achieve. He would advise, “Make your life count—and the world will be a better place because you tried.” Friends appreciated his easy-going nature, sense of humor, pranks, gifts of Kona coffee, and lavish backyard luaus. A fellow astronaut said of Onizuka, “He probably didn’t think of himself as a pioneer, but somebody had to be the first, and I’m glad it was him.” He noted that Onizuka helped “widen the image of what an astronaut could be.”

Onizuka with youngsters in 1985.

Onizuka left a personal legacy—his wife and two daughters—and his memory is kept alive especially in Hawai‘i. Located on the Big Island are the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole and the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, which is part of the Maunakea Observatories complex. The educational Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center, originally located at the airport, is now integrated into the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i on Oahu island. In California, the Air Force named two installations in his honor: the Ellison Onizuka Satellite Operations Facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base and the Onizuka Air Force Station (which closed in 2010). In Hawai‘i and California, Onizuka Memorial Committees sponsor annual Space Science Days to carry on his passion for inspiring young people. Elsewhere, streets, schools, libraries, and other sites are named in his memory—including an asteroid, a crater on the Moon, and a bridge in his grandparents’ hometown, Ukiha, Japan. A Star Fleet shuttlepod called Onizuka appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). In 2021, Northrop Grumman named its automated Cygnus craft S.S. Ellison Onizuka for the NG-16 cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station.  

Holders of a United States passport may not have noticed that each page to be stamped includes a quotation, most from Presidents and a few from other prominent sources. The last page, which faces space imagery, bears this statement by Ellison S. Onizuka: “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds...to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”

Page 28 on a United States passport that displays a quote from Onizuka.
Related Topics Human spaceflight Space Shuttle program Asian American or Asian people
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