Hawai‘i’s Space Science Teachers Extraordinaire

Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations and continue their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, a professor emeritus at UH Manoa. Both volunteer with JCCH.

The complete interview with Art and Rene Kimura, the subjects of this month’s profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center. It can also be read online at https://jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/6504.

Growing up in Hilo, Art Kimura aspired to be either a marine biologist or a pilot. Instead, his career took a life-defining turn when he earned a degree in zoology and became a high school science teacher. After a stint as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, Art and his wife Rene returned to Honolulu after his assignment in Okinawa and began teaching: Art at McKinley High and Rene at Hongwanji Mission School. Over the last 30 years, the Kimuras have received local and national accolades as master educators in promoting science and space education for students.

Art was always an unconventional and innovative teacher. His philosophy was to have children experiment and construct their own understanding of the physical world. Rather than teach from a textbook, he focused on real-world situations.

“Students did not report to my classroom,” he said. “They had to report to places like the Honolulu Zoo, the Humane Society, the Waikiki Aquarium and Straub Hospital.” He wanted his pupils to learn science as it were happening in actual practice.

The Challenger Tragedy

Within the vast sphere of the sciences, Art possessed a long-held desire to fly in space. When President Ronald Reagan announced in 1984 that NASA would include a teacher aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, it came as no surprise that Art planned to apply. He almost missed his opportunity when he was given the wrong submission deadline. But the McKinley High faculty, who knew of his passion, lobbied to have his application accepted.

“They wrote to the President, to the Governor, to the Board of Education, to NASA,” recalled Art. He was allowed to submit his application and was one of two applicants selected to represent Hawai‘i. In the final cut, however, Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, NH, was chosen for the Challenger crew. She, along with her backup, Barbara Morgan, were trained on the shuttle as passengers, not as operational staff. Art fondly recalls that Christa and Barbara wrote letters to the other finalists about their training.

The Kimuras working with students on a “To Mars in a Shoebox” project.
The Kimuras working with students on a “To Mars in a Shoebox” project.
Art and Rene Kimura with teacher and backup astronaut Barbara Morgan next to the bust of Hawai‘i astronaut Ellison Onizuka. (Photos courtesy Art and Rene Kimura)
Art and Rene Kimura with teacher and backup astronaut Barbara Morgan next to the bust of Hawai‘i astronaut Ellison Onizuka. (Photos courtesy Art and Rene Kimura)

As a finalist, Art and his family were invited to the Challenger launching at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1986. He remembers that they were pretty close to the launch site and could see the Challenger sitting on the launch pad. In the freezing weather, they listened to the countdown. Then “some crazy things started to happen,” he recalled. The shuttle’s door handle broke off. Then the batteries in the drill to remove a door screw went dead. The wind changed direction and the launch was postponed.

The Kimuras had to leave before the rescheduled launch. While exiting the plane in Chicago on their return trip to Honolulu, the cockpit door flew open and the pilot rushed out, yelling, “The Challenger exploded!”

“We ended up watching the explosion over and over again on a TV set in a bar in the Chicago airport. We just lost it,” he said.

Upon returning to the Hawai‘i Department of Education in 1987, Art was given time off from his high school teaching duties to visit schools across the state and share the excitement of the space program. He did this for a year and was amazed at the response. The young students were captivated by the prospects of learning more about space exploration.

Although the Kimuras never got to befriend Kona-born astronaut Ellison Onizuka, a mission specialist on the Challenger flight that exploded in 1986, Art recalled meeting him in 1985 in Honolulu when the Big Island engineer and astronaut was in town to support the Teacher in Space promotion.

“I got to shake his hand and then he was swarmed by everyone wanting to take a picture with him,” Art chuckled. While Art didn’t get to actually talk with Onizuka, former Hawai‘i governor George Ariyoshi remembered Ellison as a “country boy” who wanted to go to schools, talk to people, and tell children to study hard and strive hard to achieve their goals.

Honoring the Onizuka Legacy

The Kimuras have played a major role in perpetuating Ellison Onizuka’s legacy. Art served on a panel to review applicants for the Ellison Onizuka scholarship that was sponsored by the Bank of Hawai‘i. As he read the applications, he was struck by the impact Onizuka had made and how his drive, humility and warmth were still very much alive in the dreams expressed by this younger generation.

The Kimuras also worked closely with Ellison’s brother, Claude, and other Onizuka family members to create an Ellison Onizuka Science Day on the Big Island in 2000. The University of Hawai‘i partnered on the event, which was funded by American Savings Bank, where Claude worked. The following year, the Kimuras established a similar program in Honolulu centered on Lacy Veach, Hawai‘i’s second astronaut. Hundreds have attended these annual events, which are fun and educational hands-on days spent interacting with geologists, astronomers and other space experts, sharing their knowledge and helping to keep the astronauts’ dreams alive.

Working with the Challenger Center

Art and Rene also participated in The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, an initiative promoted by families of the Challenger’s crewmembers. They wanted Challenger Centers where students could be inspired by the space mission.

In 1993, the Kimuras were instrumental in developing a Challenger Learning Center at Barbers Point Elementary School. The Campbell Estate, the Weinberg Foundation and the Hawai‘i DOE provided the funding. It was one of the first of 18 centers established in the U.S. Two classrooms were gutted for the project, which included a Mission Control in one room and a Space Station in the other. From 1986 through 2000, Art and Rene were members of the international faculty of the Center for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. They continue to be active participants in this initiative.

Participating in a Space Camp

Along with their work on the Onizuka legacy, the Kimuras have been a tireless team, striving to advance space science education in Hawai‘i. In 1989, the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism created an Office of Space Industry and “borrowed” Art from the DOE for seven years to establish space-related programs in K-12 schools. Art and Rene took Hawai‘i youngsters to a weeklong museum program called Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. The students got to experience a simulated flight on a space  shuttle.

By the end of six years, the Kimuras had taken over 500 students and teachers to Space Camp. In 1990, Art was invited to be a teacher representative from the U.S. at the first International Space Camp. The participants were flown to Washington, D.C., where they met Ohio senator and former astronaut John Glenn and then traveled on to the Kennedy Space Center. The group wound up at the Space Camp in Alabama, where Art ran a simulated mission as the flight director for a shuttle launch.

Establishing Future Flight Hawai‘i

As a result of his work with the Space Camp in Alabama, Art was invited to create a similar program in Hawai‘i. In 1991, he and Rene established Future Flight Hawai‘i, which ran for 25 years and served 9,000 participants. The Hawai‘i version was based on the state’s natural environment, such as lava fields representing landing on Mars.

In recent years, the local initiative was moved from DBEDT to the UH Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium. The program itself has been modified and now hosts family science days or night programs for children and parents instead of longer residential camps in which the Kimuras continue to incorporate the legacies of Onizuka and Veach. Rene has also served as a specialist on the Hawai‘i Space Grant Consortium since 1994.

Recent Work

Art and Rene have been integrating robotics into their programs. They launched the first program 21 years ago with just two schools. Today, there are nine programs and over 700 teams. In 2014, Art and Rene were recognized as VEX Robotics Volunteers of the Year at the World Championships and inducted into the STEM Hall of Fame.

Always seeking ways to promote STEM learning, the Kimuras also got involved with the Aloha Council of the Boy Scouts with the Scouts reimagining the Makahiki as the Onizuka Day of Exploration to honor the former Eagle Scout. At this special event in 2015, the couple created workshops geared toward helping the Scouts prepare for college and careers. Over 8,000 individuals attended the event in 2019.

Keeping Dreams Alive

The Kimuras have been recognized with numerous awards for their achievements, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching in 1983 for Art, the Women in Aerospace National Educator Award for Rene in 2011 and recognition as a Living Treasures of Hawai‘i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii in 2014 for both Kimuras.

“When you count the numbers on what we’ve done, it’s hundreds of thousands of kids who have been exposed to the wonders of space and the legacy of the Challenger,” said Art, reflecting on their work over the past three decades. Together, they demonstrate the same passion in their continuing efforts to inspire youngsters to recognize the role of science in today’s world.

Rene eloquently sums up her husband’s drive: “The ideas [of space exploration] always fascinated Art. He has always wanted to try, to experiment. He imagines what that might be like and shares that with students. His message is that there are no holds barred — if you see an opportunity that interests you, go for it.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here