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.”

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