Ellison Onizuka (1946–86) was an astronaut for the US Space Shuttle program who earned degrees at the University of Colorado in Boulder before perishing in the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. Onizuka was Colorado’s highest-profile astronaut and is remembered today as an advocate for science education who was struck down in his prime by one of the worst space disasters in history.
Early Life and Education
A native of Kona, Hawaii, Ellison Onizuka aspired to be a pilot even as a young boy. Onizuka came to Boulder in 1964 to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering, joining the ROTC and becoming president of the Association of Engineering Students during his tenure at the university. He and his wife, Lorna, a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and also from Kona, considered Colorado their second home; they married and had their first child, Janelle, in the state in 1969. A second daughter, Darien, was born in 1975.
Onizuka always made time to share his perspective with others, and he returned to the University of Colorado often to meet with students who dreamt of becoming astronauts themselves. He believed that being an astronaut made him the luckiest man alive, and in 1985 he conveyed this message to inspire students:
"Your vision is not limited to what your eye can see, but by what your mind can imagine. Many things that you take for granted were considered unrealistic dreams by previous generations. If you accept these past accomplishments as commonplace, then think of the new horizons you can explore. From your vantage point, your education and imagination will carry you to places which we won’t believe possible. Make your life count—and the whole world will be a better place because you tried."
The Challenger launch from Cape Canaveral was originally scheduled for Saturday, January 25, 1986. There had already been two postponements, and technicians and engineers were working around the clock to ready the shuttle for liftoff. Unforeseen delays frustrated the mission. Challenger did not launch Saturday or Sunday, due to severe winds in the mission’s emergency landing locations in North Africa. On Monday morning, hundreds of chilly spectators huddled together four miles from the launch pad, waiting as crews struggled with a latch in the shuttle door. Technicians could not remove a stubborn bolt on the handle, using three different drills and wasting two precious hours. By the time it was fixed, the weather worsened and Mission Control postponed the launch until the next day.
On Tuesday morning, January 28, the spectators returned to the same area, stamping their feet and clapping their hands during one of the wettest and coldest Januarys Florida had seen. In below-freezing temperatures, large icicles draped the launch structure, and the shuttle pad was as slick as an ice-skating rink. A shuttle had never launched in such cold weather before, and technicians worked all morning to remove as much ice as possible. NASA officials and contractors debated the effect the unusual weather conditions would have on the liftoff as part of the detailed protocol that precedes every shuttle launch. By Tuesday morning, they concluded the mission could proceed.
The seven Challenger crew members—Commander Francis Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, electrical engineer Judith Resnik, physicist and laser expert Ronald McNair, satellite engineer Gregory Jarvis, pilot Ellison Onizuka, and teacher Christa McAuliffe—were strapped into their seats and had been sealed inside the shuttle since 9 am Eastern Standard Time. They wondered if the weather would halt the launch again. That would be the fourth delay in as many days, and the crew hoped that Mission Control would not wait until the last minute to cancel. Of the seven crew members, only Smith, Jarvis, and McAuliffe had never flown in space before. Finally, at 11:38 am, the Challenger lifted off. At the viewing site, Colorado youngsters and teachers erupted in a chorus of cheers that were quickly drowned out by the deafening rocket boosters as the shuttle rapidly ascended more than eight miles above the Atlantic Ocean.
However, a series of mechanical failures immediately following the launch—in part due to the uncommonly frigid conditions—caused the Challenger to explode over the Atlantic. Onizuka and the rest of the crew perished in the disaster. The explosion also destroyed two well-publicized experiments from the University of Colorado that had intended to collect data on Halley’s Comet as it approached the sun. The year 1986 was to be NASA’s most ambitious yet; most of the fifteen scheduled shuttle launches included experiments or alumni from the University of Colorado. But instead, the Challenger disaster introduced years of troubled postponements that put a significant damper on space research in Colorado. Moreover, the Challenger explosion marked the first time in fifty-six manned NASA missions that Americans died during flight; the only previous fatalities had come when the Apollo One caught fire on its test pad.
Adapted from Dianna Litvak, “Ellison Onizuka and the Challenger Disaster,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 19, no.1 (1999).