A model of the Challenger space shuttle and the spacesuit worn by Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise are among the artifacts in the Ellison Onizuka Remembrance.
A model of the Challenger space shuttle and the spacesuit worn by Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise are among the artifacts in the Ellison Onizuka Remembrance.

Karleen C. Chinen

Beloved Hawai‘i astronaut Ellison Onizuka’s 71st birthday was remembered and celebrated on June 24 with the opening of “The Ellison Onizuka Remembrance” at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. The collection is now part of the center’s “Okage Sama De: I am what I am because of you” permanent exhibit.

The remembrance includes a collection of photographs and artifacts celebrating the life of Hawai‘i’s first astronaut — and America’s first astronaut of Japanese and Asian ancestry. Among the artifacts are a nine-foot model of the Challenger space shuttle, a spacesuit worn by Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, a piece of moon rock and a bust of Onizuka, who inspired countless children to dream big and work hard to realize those dreams.

Onizuka and his six Challenger crewmates were killed instantly when their space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 28, 1986.

For more than 24 years, the collection had been displayed in the Ellison Onizuka Space Center at Kona International Airport on Hawai‘i island. However, plans to expand the airport forced its closure in March 2016. (Earlier this year, the airport was officially renamed the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keähole.) The artifacts were placed in storage while the Onizuka Memorial Committee searched for a new venue to share Ellison’s story with the public.

With the late astronaut’s Hawai‘i family members in attendance — brother and Onizuka Memorial Committee chair Claude Onizuka and sister Shirley Matsuoka, along with other family members — the remembrance was opened to the public at JCCH.

The Onizuka-JCCH relationship was facilitated by JCCH’s Hawai‘i island board member Daniel Kamitaki; University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa American Studies professor Dr. Dennis Ogawa; businessman Duane Kurisu, a Big Island native; and Mililani optometrist Dr. Ron Reynolds.

In a phone interview with the Herald, Reynolds said he was dismayed to learn that the Ellison Onizuka Space Center was being shuttered, so he called Kurisu, his longtime friend. “It’s not right that they’re not going to have anything on Ellison Onizuka for the kids,” he told Kurisu.

Empathizing with Reynolds’ disappointment, Kurisu contacted Ogawa, who had gotten to know the Onizuka family intimately while writing the book, “Ellison S. Onizuka: A Remembrance,” with the late Glen Grant. Ogawa, in turn, contacted Claude Onizuka. The four met and agreed that they needed to find a new home to display the tangible reminders of Ellison’s life, passion and work. They felt the JCCH would be the ideal place and approached its president and executive director Carole Hayashino, who was very interested in accepting the collection for JCCH.

Everyone whose kökua (help) they sought came through, said Reynolds — the Shiotsuka family, owners of Kona Trucking, which stored the collection until it was ready to be shipped to Honolulu; Young Brothers, who shipped the crates to O‘ahu; Hawaii Air Cargo owner Brian Suzuki, who stored the crates in his warehouse until they were ready to be transferred to JCCH — all because they believed in the project. The Sekiya of Fukuoka/Hawai‘i Endowment Fund of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation and the HouseMart Family Foundation provided additional funding for the design and installation of The Ellison Onizuka Remembrance.

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Former Gov. George Ariyoshi holds the photograph of his family that Ellison Onizuka took aboard his ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986. NASA returned to the photo to Ariyoshi, cleaned and framed, after the Challenger tragedy.
Former Gov. George Ariyoshi holds the photograph of his family that Ellison Onizuka took aboard his ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986. NASA returned to the photo to Ariyoshi, cleaned and framed, after the Challenger tragedy.

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