On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift off, killing all seven astronauts aboard. One of the crew, Ellison S. Onizuka, had become the first Japanese American astronaut the year before when he flew on a secret mission aboard the shuttle Discovery.
The Japanese American community in Los Angeles was deeply moved by the death of Onizuka for he had often visited Little Tokyo on his trips to Los Angeles and was the Grand Marshall of the 1985 Nisei Week Parade. In mid-1986, an organization called the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial was formed as a non-profit corporation. During the following two years it sponsored high school and university programs on space science. The organization also participated in the successful community effort to rename Weller Street the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street.
Shortly after its incorporation, the Onizuka Memorial Committee proposed a permanent exhibition about the life of Onizuka for the Japanese American National Museum. At the same time, merchants along what became Onizuka Street planned to install a statue of Onizuka by an internationally recognized artist. However, neither of these projects came to fruition. In 1989, the merchants formed the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Commemorative Committee to raise funds for a memorial to the astronaut, the shuttle's entire crew and the space program.
Isao Hirai, president of the Scale Model Company in Hawthorne, was commissioned to execute a model of the Challenger. He proposed a 1/10th scale model of the Challenger to fit the size and scale of the site. Like two earlier 1/25th scale models of the shuttle he constructed shortly after the Challenger exploded (one was displayed in a 1987 memorial service at the Nishi Hongwangi Temple), the model for the Onizuka Memorial was constructed from drawings supplied the builder of the shuttles, Rockwell International. Because of small differences in the design and exterior painting between each shuttle and each mission, all three of Hirai's models replicate the appearance of the Challenger on its last flight.
The shuttle for the Onizuka Memorial is 12'6" long, while the total length of the boosters, shuttle and fuel tank is 18'4". Each component is made of fiberglass reinforced on the inside with aluminum plates. Steel posts connect the shuttle to the 7' pedestal.
Bi-lingual plaques on the pedestal, written by members of the Commemorative Committee as a collaborative effort, recognize Onizuka as well as the space program, the entire crew of the Challenger and the donors to the monument. Joseph Hernandez, hired by Hirai, designed the bas-relief on the plaque about Onizuka.
Ellison Shoji Onizuka (June 24, 1946-January 28, 1986) was born and raised on Kona, Hawaii. He received a BS degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1968 and a Masters Degree in 1969 from the University of Colorado. The following year, he joined the U.S. Air Force and became a flight engineer. Onizuka later attended the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and in 1978, was selected by NASA for the astronaut program.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, October 1997.
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