NASA lost the first Asian-American astronaut to fly into space 33 years ago when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and killed its seven crew members.
Born in Kealakekua, Hawaii, on June 24, 1946, Ellison Shoji Onizuka, who is of Japanese descent, was part of the Space Shuttle Discovery mission on the STS-51-C on January 24, 1985, and STS-51-L, the program’s 25th mission and final flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Challenger left the Kennedy Space Station in Florida on January 28, 1986, according to Hawaii News Now.
The nation reached a state of total shock when the space shuttle Onizuka and six other astronauts were on exploded about 73 seconds after liftoff. He was 39 years old.
An investigation revealed that the cold temperature in Florida at the time had compromised the seals in the Challenger’s twin rocket booster.
Claude, Onizuka’s brother, recounted how they witnessed the accident first-hand when they were at the space station during launch.
“We were about three miles from the launch site out in an open observation area. When the Challenger blew up, it was almost overhead,” he said.
“He left us doing what he wanted to do. He went into the program with his eyes wide open,” Claude said in an interview with Big Island Television, Hawaii, in 2015. “It’s something that the family respected and we accepted.”
Before the accident, Onizuka had already prepared his family for any worst-case scenarios.
“Ellison always told us if anything went wrong, it’s like sitting on top of a giant bomb,” Claude told Hawaii News Now in 2016.
Onizuka entered active duty with the United States Air Force in January 1970 before his career at NASA.
He served as a flight test engineer and a test pilot and worked as a manager for engineering support in the training resources division after attending the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School from August 1974 to July 1975.
A few years later, he was accepted for NASA’s astronaut program and completed his one-year evaluation in August 1979.
Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons / NASA