More than 31 years after University of Colorado graduate Lt. Col. Ellison Onizuka lost his life on the space shuttle Challenger, his spirit is being remembered aboard the International Space Station, by way of a soccer ball from his daughter's former school.
It's a ball that, like Onizuka himself, had once been destined for space, before fate intervened.
According to NASA, when Onizuka and six other astronauts launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986, he carried several items with him. One item on board was a soccer ball, which had been signed and presented to him by soccer players — including his own daughter — from Clear Lake High School in Houston, which his daughter attended and is located near NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Following the catastrophic explosion of the Challenger 73 seconds after launch, killing everyone on board, that soccer ball was recovered and returned to the high school. It has been displayed there for the past 30 years.
However, Clear Lake Principal Karen Engle recently learned of the story behind the ball, and soon after, ISS Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough — whose son attends the same school — offered to take a school memento to the space station. Engle suggested that the memento should be the soccer ball.
It's there now, and Kimbrough sent out a picture of it with this tweet from his account on Feb. 3: "This ball was on Challenger that fateful day. Flown by Ellison Onizuka for his daughter, a soccer player. @Clear_LakeHS. #NASARemembers."
Word of the ball in space has reached Onizuka's sister, Shirley Matsuoka, at her home in Captain Cook, Hawaii.
"I think that's great — something that was recovered and, you know, went up into space again," Matsuoka said.
She still has great pride in what her brother accomplished in his 39 years.
"I remember him as one that really tried be on top, and would do anything to get ahead," she said. "We think he did great."
One of those connected with CU who remembers Onizuka best is Robert Culp, professor emeritus and former chair of the Ann and H. J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences department.
"I was his adviser for both his bachelor's and his master's degrees in that department and knew him very well at that time," Culp said. "He was one of those students who came in to see me several times a week. He liked to sit and talk about the aerospace industry. At that time, he was really more interested in airplanes than space."
Culp said Onizuka secured both degrees in the same year — a rarity. A difficult feat.
"I can still remember when we got the phone call" about the loss of the Challenger, said Culp, who lives in Northglenn. "We were just trying to finish up something. I was going to run down to the television room where we had the launch on live, when I got a call from a colleague at the University of Texas and he told me what had happened. It was a shock, and it occupied us for quite some time. Lots of people liked to talk about Ellison."
Onizuka had some CU memorabilia with him on the Challenger such as a CU flag and football — now on display in the CU Heritage Center — as well as more important items with local connections. There were several CU payloads and experiments on the Challenger, including the Spartan Halley satellite, which was to be released from the shuttle to gather data on that comet, as well as a sophisticated camera system with which to capture images of the comet from inside the spacecraft.
Culp had not heard that the Clear Lake soccer ball had made it onto one NASA launch, much less a second, these many years later.
"He had never mentioned it when I was in touch with him," Culp said. "I guess he had a number of things he had taken up there, and that was just one that I had never heard about.
"I think it's very nice that they took it back up there. It helps to keep Ellison's name on people's minds. You don't want him to ever be forgotten. He was such a wonderful person."
Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/chasbrennan
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