Ellison Onizuka

The first Asian American to fly in space

Portrait - Astronaut Onizuka, Ellison S. (1986-01-24)NASA

Early Life

Ellison Onizuka was born June 24, 1946, in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii.

Onizuka graduated from Konawaena High School, Kealakekua, Hawaii, in 1964 and went on to receive bachelor and master of science degrees in Aerospace Engineering in June and December 1969, respectively, from the University of Colorado.

Ellison OnizukaNASA

Air Force Career

After receiving his commission at the University of Colorado through the four year ROTC program, Onizuka entered on active duty with the United States Air Force as a distinguished military graduate in January 1970. 

At the Sacramento Air Logistics Center at McClellan Air Force Base, he worked in test flight programs and systems security engineering for a variety of aircraft, including the F-84, F-100, F-105, F-111 and A-1. Onizuka also attended the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. While at the school, he registered more than 1,700 flight hours. 

Astronaut Candiates - 1978 Shuttle Program (2010-01-25)NASA

Joining NASA

Onizuka was selected as a member of NASA's Astronaut Class of 1978...

...also known as the Thirty-Five New Guys, the first astronaut class in nearly a decade and also the first to include women, Hispanics and Asian and African Americans. 

Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka seated at commander's station (1985-01-25)NASA

Onizuka completed a one year training and evaluation period in August 1979. He subsequently worked on orbiter test and checkout teams and launch support crews at the Kennedy Space Center for STS-l and STS-2. 

He worked on software test and checkout crew at the Shuttle Avionics and Integration Laboratory (SAIL), and has supported numerous other technical assignments ranging from astronaut crew equipment/orbiter crew compartment coordinator to systems and payload development.

Launch - STS-51C (1985-01-28)NASA

STS 51-C

He first flew as a mission specialist on STS 51-C, the first Space Shuttle Department of Defense mission, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on January 24, 1985.


Onizuka was accompanied by Captain Thomas K. Mattingly (spacecraft commander), Colonel Loren J. Shriver (pilot), fellow mission specialist, Colonel James F. Buchli, and Lieutenant Colonel Gary E. Payton (DOD payload specialist).

Astronauts Onizuka and Shriver pose in middeck (1985-01-25)NASA

During the mission, Onizuka was responsible for the primary payload activities, which included the deployment of a modified Inertial Upper Stage (IUS). STS 51-C Discovery completed 48 orbits of the Earth before landing at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on January 27, 1985. 

CREW TRAINING - STS-33/51L - JSC (1985-09-19)NASA

With the completion of this flight he logged a total of 74 hours in space. 

Official Portrait - STS-51L Crewmembers (1985-01-01)NASA

STS 51-L

Colonel Onizuka was a mission specialist on STS 51-L which was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 11:38:00 EST on January 28, 1986. 

The crew on board the Orbiter Challenger included the spacecraft commander, Mr. F.R. Scobee, the pilot, Commander M.J. Smith (USN), fellow mission specialists, Dr. R.E. McNair, and Dr. J.A. Resnik, as well as two civilian payload specialists, Mr. G.B. Jarvis and Mrs. S. C. McAuliffe.

On January 28, 1986, Onizuka lost his life alongside the STS 51-L crew when Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after launch. 

Crew pose for portrait while training at KSC (1986-01-09)NASA

As the first Asian-American astronaut to fly in space, Onizuka broke new boundaries and has left an important legacy that has inspired many since, including Taylor Wang, Franklin Chang-Diaz, Gene Trinh, Leroy Chiao, Ed Lu, Kalpana Chawla, Mark Polansky, Dan Tani, Suni Williams, Kjell Lindgren, Raja Chari, Patricia Hilliard Robertson, and Jonny Kim. 

See more NASA Asian Pacific American Heritage trailblazers here.

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