The Astronaut in my Passport

"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" - Ellison S. Onizuka

The last time I left the country, I was off to Germany on vacation with my family, and while we were waiting in the airport I found myself casually flipping through my US passport. Each page features a quote from some famous American person or document, everything from the Declaration of Independence to an excerpt from the Mohawk Thanksgiving Address. When I got to the very end, I was surprised by what I saw on the last page: opposite an image of the Earth viewed from the Moon commemorating America's space program, the above quote by astronaut Ellison Onizuka is proudly featured. Born 74 years ago this past week, Onizuka was the first Asian American in space, and he was one of the seven crew members killed in the Challenger disaster in 1986

From the back of my own passport 

Onizuka was born on June 24, 1946 in Kealakekua, Hawaii to Japanese-American parents, and after graduating from Konawaena High School, he would go on to earn both a bachelors and a masters in aerospace engineering from UC Boulder and become a test pilot for the US Air Force. As a squadron test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, he oversaw advanced military aircraft like the F4 Phantom, T-38 Talon, and KC-135 Stratotanker, logging over 1,700 flight hours before NASA picked him for the astronaut corp in 1978

After his death, the USAF posthumously promoted Onizuka the rank of colonel

Onizuka's first spaceflight was STS-51C on Space Shuttle Discovery in 1985 as part of a crew of 5 that successfully deployed the first shuttle payload for the Department of Defense, a secretive mission that remains classified to this day. As mission specialist, Onizuka was responsible for deploying the primary payload, a role he would've reprised a year later had Challenger not ended in disaster due to a failed O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster

I've always liked this picture of Onizuka using chopsticks on STS-51C. I feel like that could be my dad, or my uncle, or even myself having a bite to eat 

The national outpouring of grief for the lost astronauts hit especially hard both among the Japanese American community and in Onizuka's home state of Hawaii. Not only was he the first astronaut from Hawaii, bringing the islands to the Space Age, he was literally raised next to a coffee plantation and even brought freeze dried Kona coffee on his first spaceflight. Among his fellow astronauts, Onizuka was famous for the backyard luaus he'd host for them, complete with entire roast pigs buried in pits! And in the years since his passing, numerous monuments and locations have been named after him, including a bridge in Ukiha, Japan (Onizuka's grandparents' hometown), a visitors center in Mauna Kea, a street in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, an asteroid, and a crater on the moon

Now that I live in LA, I've been wanting to visit his memorials in Little Tokyo. Hopefully once coronavirus passes

Space exploration is at times criticized for being detached from the pressing problems here on Earth. With the recent national discourse on racial equality in America, I've had some people ask me how the space program can be more inclusive and better inspire the diverse people of the world. There's no easy answer, and I'm by no means an expert on this topic, but I think it starts with sharing the stories of the pioneers that broke barriers before us. In my own case, like all Americans I regard our astronauts with awe and admiration, but as an Asian American, I feel a particular connection with the lucky few Asian Americans who've had the chance to explore space (by my count there have been 4 US astronauts of East Asian descent, and I know a 5th one, Jonny Kim, is part of the most recent astronaut class and is now eligible for mission assignment).

So for starters, go learn about the groundbreaking 1978 NASA astronaut class: it included the first American woman (Sally Ride), the first African American (Guion Bluford), the first Asian American (Ellison Onizuka), the first Jewish American (Judy Resnik), the first mother (Anna Lee Fisher), and the first LGBT astronaut (Sally Ride again, though this was not revealed until after her death). The first Latino American came soon after: Franklin Chang-Diaz, in the 1980 astronaut class. My point is, once we see ourselves among the stars, then we too will have the courage to follow

The 1978 astronaut class was truly one for the record books

And if you're interested in more stories about Ellison Onizuka and his life, check out this fascinating article here about the soccer ball he carried on Challenger for his daughters, which survived the explosion, lay forgotten for decades, and eventually made it to the International Space Station, 30 years later!

"If I can impress upon you only one idea... let it be that the people who make this world run, whose lives can be termed successful, whose names will go down in the history books, are not the cynics, the critics, or the armchair quarterbacks.

They are the adventurists, the explorers, and doers of this world. When they see a wrong or a problem, they do something about it. When they see a vacant place in our knowledge, they work to fill that void.

Rather than leaning back and criticizing how things are, they work to make things the way they should be. They are the aggressive, the self-starters, the innovative, and the imaginative of this world.

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.

Your vision is not limited by what your eye can see, but what your mind can imagine. 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."

- Ellison Onizuka's commencement address to his high school alma mater in Kona, Hawaii (1980)


  1. I was a Flight Controller who worked with El; great article!!
    - Dave Huntsman

    1. That's awesome you got to meet him! I'm glad you enjoyed the article :)