Most baby boomers can often recall the exact moment when they heard the news that President Kennedy was assassinated. For my generation, that moment was when the the space shuttle Challenger exploded.
I was a freshman in high school in biology lab class when the vice principal was walking the halls and mentioned to my teacher that the shuttle had exploded. I remember after school, walking over to my friend’s house too far from my high school and watching the news reports. And later that evening, watching President Reagan give his speech on the tragic events of the day.
In reading about the news today about today’s 25th anniversary, I had not realized at the time that another kind of history was being made: Astronaut Ellison Onizuka, a Japanese American who grew up in Hawaii, was the first Asian American astronaut to make it to space:
“Onizuka, a native of Kona and the first Asian-American astronaut to reach space, was among the crew members who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. … Ellison Onizuka’s widow, Lorna, who works at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Houston, and daughter Darien Onizuka-Morgan placed flowers yesterday at a memorial marker for Onizuka at the Astronaut Memorial Tree Grove in Houston.”
Onizuka was an Air Force flight test engineer and test pilot prior to joining NASA. His first space mission took place in January of 1985 – a year prior to Challenger, on space shuttle Discovery.
Growing up, given my interest in science & math and technology in general, I had a lot of interest in the space program, and had thoughts of possibly working for NASA working on space probes like Voyager 1 & 2 and Pioneer 10. Part of my interest in becoming a mechanical engineer and working for an aerospace company was partly fueled by the space program.
Had there been more Onizuka’s at the time as a role model, I may have considered being an astronaut (though my eye sight was never all that great – a necessary requirement for being a pilot.) Over 130 shuttle missions have been flown, with two shuttles lost: Challenger and Columbia, in 2003 during re-entry. With one more space shuttle launch scheduled this spring prior to the end of the space shuttle program, an America space era will be over.
Space travel has almost been almost routine, and space tourism and commercial space flight industry is emerging, but anniversary days like today will always remind us of the dangers of space flight and the loss of Challenger will always be remembered in my mind as a pivotal memory of my youth; may Onizuka rest in peace.