This Week: Remembering Ellison Onizuka

onizukaShuttle astronaut Ellison Onizuka was born on June 24, 1946, in Hawaii. He would be 70 years old on Friday.

Onizuka was selected for the astronaut corps in 1978 as part of the first class to include women. He was the first Asian American to travel to space, and the first American woman, the first African American, the first Jewish person, and the first mother in space all were part of Group 8.

Onizuka’s first mission was STS-51C aboard Discovery in 1985. The commander was Ken Mattingly, who’d flown on Apollo 16. The shuttle launched on a cold morning, and an o-ring in a booster rocket joint suffered more damage than had been seen before; in fact, the second rubber ring was damaged, the first time this had been observed. Roger Boisjoly, a Morton Thiokol engineer, expressed concern over that launch and one in July, which had likely been seconds from catastrophic failure because of the known o-ring problem.

Onizuka’s last mission was STS-51L aboard Challenger on January 28, 1986. The extremely cold temperature that morning increased the likelihood that the o-rings would not seal every booster joint, and, indeed, 73 seconds into ascent, disaster occurred. Onizuka and his six crew mates died.

As we look at our U.S. passports now and turn to page 28, we see Onizuka’s words:

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.

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