Lorna Onizuka, widow of Challenger astronaut Ellison and a JAXA consultant. (Credits: NASA/Bill Stafford)
Lorna Onizuka, widow of Challenger astronaut Ellison and a JAXA consultant. (Credits: NASA/Bill Stafford)

Lorna Onizuka Makes It Through in the Arms of Her NASA Family

Catherine Ragin Williams
NASA Johnson Space Center
Reprinted with Permission

Editor’s note: While Googling information on the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy a few months ago, I happened across this story by Catherine Ragin Williams of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. If you are old enough to remember the tragedy that claimed the life of Kona-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka, you likely remember the faces of Ellison’s family — his widow Lorna and their two young daughters, and his mother and three siblings. Lorna Onizuka, who also was born and raised on Hawai‘i Island, decided to remain in Houston, where she raised her daughters with her “NASA family” and works with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Catherine’s piece was originally published in May 2015 in conjunction with the Johnson Space Center’s observance of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month to honor a few employees “whose character, courage and commitment have helped shape them into the people they are today.” The story was updated this past August.

As I read Williams’ story, it seemed a fitting piece for the Herald’s “Legacy of the Sansei” series, even if Lorna Onizuka had not written it herself. So, I contacted NASA for their permission.

The Herald thanks Lorna Onizuka, writer Catherine Ragin Williams, photographer Bill Stafford and NASA for allowing us to share this story with our readers.

Onizuka. It’s a name that, for many, holds a stirring of recollection. For those of us older, it reminds us of Challenger — and one hero of many who lost his life in a swift and catastrophic accident.

Lorna, the widow of that astronaut, Ellison, proudly bears the Onizuka name and the heritage entwined with it. A formidable woman in a diminutive body, she has charted her own course with NASA as a consultant to the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in support of the Multilateral Crew Operations Panel. In 1985, after a rewarding career teaching and also pursuing a master’s degree in her “free” time while raising two daughters, she made a pivotal switch with Barrios to support the opening of NASA’s international partners.

Her new company was flexible. She asked for two weeks off to go watch her husband’s second launch into space aboard Challenger. They were more than understanding and allowed Onizuka that opportunity in January 1986.

Two weeks . . . became more.

“It took me a while to go back,” Onizuka said of the time following Challenger. “But they were very gracious to wait until I was ready, and it gave me a target date, which was good. I’ve been supporting the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency ever since then.”

Onizuka has a deep respect for explorers and the risks they take, as well as what the families supporting these astronauts go through.

“After El died is when I think there was a greater sense of respect and appreciation for what these people did and how hard they had to work to get to do what they do . . . and a sense of acceptance that risks do exist, although we set it aside,” Onizuka said.

She recalled the many times she would scold her husband for missing a T-38 flight back from Cape Canaveral, Florida, or fussing because he wasn’t there to help the girls get their homework done — when he was the one better at science and math.

“I missed him, you know,” Onizuka said. “I watch these other astronauts, and they persevere in spite of some bad things happening. And I watch their families, and I appreciate them for what I know they are having to sacrifice of themselves. I think since Challenger and Columbia, there is a greater sense of knowing you should never take it for granted. These people who are at the forefront are still willing to fly and do these things, and do it knowingly. I have an appreciation that’s different from what I had back then.”

With the loss of her husband inexorably tied to the space program, it may be surprising to some that she never once considered turning her back on NASA.

“I never felt a resentment or bitterness toward the agency itself,” Onizuka said. “The people that my husband and I considered our immediate environment of community and friends — they were still the same people. There were mistakes made, but you can’t blame everybody for what did happen because of the negligence of a few. Nothing was going to bring them back. And I think, for me, I was sad that it happened the way it happened — but my NASA family, my friends, my children’s friends . . . they were all the same people. You don’t amputate yourself from that. At least, I don’t think I could have.”

The phrase “NASA family” is one that is sometimes bandied about without the appropriate reverence, but for Onizuka, it was everything.

“I could sense every day — and this is so much the truth — not a day went by that I didn’t feel I was cared for by my NASA family,” Onizuka said. “And every night I went through my bedroom door, I was thankful for them. And I knew my girls needed that most, and it was something I myself couldn’t provide for them. It sustained us for years. It still does today.”

But for all Onizuka’s name is linked to a dark moment in time, the woman herself sparkles with a ready smile and playful sense of humor that is quite simply infectious. Born and raised in Hawai‘i, Onizuka credits her Japanese grandparents and her proud heritage in helping her navigate a sometimes troubling world.

“The culture that they brought with them — the values, the morals, the language — everything was locked in time and passed on to us,” Onizuka said. “It isn’t until you grow up and go away, like when I went away to college, when I realized how much I subconsciously fall back on the core things within my heritage that helped me make decisions for myself, by myself. My husband was also born and raised there, so we both understood how much of a rudder our heritage is and always will be to us. It is something we would never willingly shed.”

Working with JAXA, Onizuka maintains an even closer tie to her ancestral homeland — and bears the brunt of cultural inconsistencies with all the humor that you would expect of the good-natured grandmother.

“They make fun of my Japanese because they say it’s what their grandparents, or great-grandparents, speak,” Onizuka said of her JAXA counterparts. “They’ll say, ‘You know, we have a Japanese/English word for that now.’ It’s evolved. So they pick that up right away when I talk.”

“And they laugh because I don’t serve tea the right way, but I try,” Onizuka laughed. “Most of the time, I’m like, ‘I’m busy. If you want coffee, I can put it on . . . but you go get it.’ But when higher-up guests come, then I try and get the tray, and they all roll their eyes.”

Onizuka enjoys being immersed in Japanese culture.

“It’s a beautiful culture, it really is, and I see so much of it in the astronauts that we have that come from Japan,” Onizuka said. “And I take it upon myself to remind them of who they are, what they are, where they come from and how fortunate they are to have that.”

Onizuka’s “other duties as assigned” include being a grandmother to seven kids between the ages of 3 and 13, picking them up from school and taking them to and attending their many sports and school activities. She also cares for her 91-year-old mother, who resides with her.

“All my grandchildren are my heart — a reflection of a part of their grandfather El and myself,” Onizuka said. “I feel good and very proud of that. It makes me smile.”

Being the only grandparent can at times be daunting, especially on Grandparents’ Day or during special holiday meals at her grandchildren’s schools. Trying to juggle three different school lunches in one day, or numerous book fairs, sometimes has Onizuka feeling as if she has a second job.

“No matter — I love them, and they love me in spite of my big hair and my weekends with no eyebrows,” Onizuka joked. “They know that if they’re not on, I’m not going anywhere.”


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