Biography of Col. Ellison Onizuka, Challenger Astronaut

Ellison Onizuka
Col. Ellison Onizuka, NASA astronaut.


When the space shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, the tragedy took the lives of seven astronauts. Among them was Col. Ellison Onizuka, an Air Force veteran and Nasa astronaut who became the first Asian-American to fly to space.

Fast Facts: Ellison Onizuka

  • Born: June 24, 1946 in Kaelakekua, Kona, Hawaii
  • Died: January 28, 1986 in Cape Canaveral, Florida
  • Parents: Masamitsu and Mitsue Onizuka
  • Spouse: Lorna Leiko Yoshida (m. 1969)
  • Children: Janelle Onizuka-Gillilan, Darien Lei Shuzue Onizuka-Morgan
  • Education: Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado 
  • Career: Air Force pilot, NASA Astronaut
  • Famous Quote: "Your vision is not limited by what your eyes 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 that 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 world will be a better place because you tried." On the wall of the Hawai'i Challenger Center.

Early Life

Ellison Onizuka was born under the name Onizuka Shoji in Kaleakekua, near Kona, on the Big Island of Hawai'i, on June 24, 1946. His parents were Masamitsu and Mitsue Onizuka. He grew up with two sisters and a brother, and was a member of Future Farmers of America and the Boy Scouts. He attended Konawaena High School and often talked about how he would dream about flying out to the stars that he could see from his home on the island. 


Onizuka left Hawai'i to study engineering at the University of Colorado, receiving a bachelor's degree in June 1969 and a master's degree a few months later. That same year he also married Lorna Leiko Yoshida. The Onizukas had two daughters: Janelle Onizuka-Gillilan and Darien Lei Shizue Onizuka-Morgan. 

After graduation, Onizuka joined the United States Air Force and served as a flight test engineer and test pilot. He also focused on systems security engineering for a number of different jets. During his flying career, Onizuka gained more than 1,700 flight hours. While in the Air Force, he trained at the Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. While racking up flying time and testing jets for the Air Force, he also worked on systems for a number of experimental military aircraft. 

Onizuka's NASA Career

Crew of STS 51C, including Ellison Onizuka.
The crew assigned to the STS-51C mission included (kneeling in front left to right) Loren J. Schriver, pilot; and Thomas K. Mattingly, II, commander. Standing, left to right, are Gary E. Payton, payload specialist; and mission specialists James F. Buchli, and Ellison L. Onizuka. Launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on January 24, 1985 at 2:50:00 pm (EST), the STS-51C was the first mission dedicated to the Department of Defense (DOD).  NASA

Ellison Onizuka was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1978 and left the Air Force with a rank of lieutenant colonel. At NASA, he worked on the shuttle avionics integration laboratory team, mission support, and, while in space, managing payloads on orbit. He took his first flight on STS 51-C aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1985. It was a top-secret flight to launch a payload from the Department of Defense, the first classified mission for the orbiters. That flight also heralded another "first" by making Onizuka the first Asian-American to fly in space. The flight lasted for 48 orbits, giving Onizuka 74 hours on orbit.

Ellison Onizuka (left) in flight during his first shuttle mission.
Ellison Onizuka (left) in flight with Loren Shriver, during his first shuttle mission.  NASA

Onizuka's Final Mission

His next assignment was on STS 51-L, set to launch Challenger into orbit in January 1986. For that flight, Onizuka was assigned mission specialist duties. He was joined by teacher-in-space selectee Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair, Michael J. Smith, Judith Resnik, and Dick Scobee. It would have been his second flight to space. Unfortunately, Col. Onizuka perished along with his crewmates when the spacecraft was destroyed during an explosion 73 seconds after launch.

Sharon Christa Mcauliffe;Ronald E. Mcnair;Gregory Jarvis;Ellison Onizuka;Michael J. Smith;Francis R. Scobee;Judith A. Resnik
Crew of Space Shuttle Challenger X (L-R front row) astronauts Smith, Scobee, McNair & (L-R rear) Onizuka, payload specialist/teacher McAuliffe, payload spec. Jarvis & astronaut Resnik, Johnson Space Center. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images / Getty Images

Honors and Legacy

Most people at NASA who worked with him remember Colonel Onizuka as an explorer. He was a man with a great sense of humor, and someone who often encouraged people, particularly young students to use their imagination and intellect as they pursued their careers. During his short career, he was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, and the National Defense Service Medal. After his death, Col. Onizuka was honored in a variety of ways, including the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. He was raised to the rank of Colonel in the Air Force, an honor given to those who lose their lives in service.

Col. Onizuka is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. His accomplishments have been memorialized on buildings, streets, an asteroid, a Star Trek shuttlecraft, and other science and engineering-related buildings. Various institutions, including the Gemini Observatories and other facilities in Hawai'i, hold annual Ellison Onizuka days for engineering and science symposia. The Challenger Center Hawai'i maintains a salute to his service to his country and to NASA. One of two airports on the Big Island is named for him: the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole.

Astronomers also recognize his service with the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. It's a support center at the base of Mauna Kea, where a number of the world's best observatories are located. Visitors to the center are told his story, and a plaque dedicated to him is mounted on a rock where everyone can see it as they enter the station. 

Onizuka was a popular speaker, and returned several times to his alma mater in Boulder, Colorado, to speak to students about becoming an astronaut. 

Onizuka's Soccer Ball

Ellison Onizuka's soccer ball, retrieved after the Challenger disaster, flies aboard the International Space Station during Expedition 49.
Ellison Onizuka's soccer ball, retrieved after the Challenger disaster, flies aboard the International Space Station during Expedition 49. NASA

One of the more poignant of Ellison Onizuka's memorials is his soccer ball. It was given to him by his daughters' soccer team, which he also coached, and was something he wanted to take to space, so he stowed it away on board the Challenger as part of his personal allotment. It actually survived the explosion that destroyed the shuttle and was eventually picked up by the rescue teams. The soccer ball was stored, along with all the other astronauts' personal effects.

Eventually, the ball made it back to the Onizuka family, and they presented it to Clear Lake High School, where the Onizuka daughters attended school. After some years in a display case, it made a special trip to orbit aboard the International Space Station during Expedition 49 in 2016. Upon its return to Earth in 2017, the ball made its way back to the high school, where it remains as a tribute to the life of Ellison Onizuka. 


  • “Colonel Ellison Shoji Onizuka.” Colorado Center for Policy Studies | University of Colorado Colorado Springs,
  • “Ellison Onizuka, First Asian-American Astronaut, Brought Hawaii to Space.”, NBCUniversal News Group,
  • “The inside Story of the Soccer Ball That Survived the Challenger Explosion.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures,
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Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of Col. Ellison Onizuka, Challenger Astronaut." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Petersen, Carolyn Collins. (2021, February 17). Biography of Col. Ellison Onizuka, Challenger Astronaut. Retrieved from Petersen, Carolyn Collins. "Biography of Col. Ellison Onizuka, Challenger Astronaut." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).