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Experiences of Onizuka endure to inspire family and community

By Rosemarie Bernardo

LAST UPDATED: 9:21 a.m. HST, Jan 28, 2011

The legacy of astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka lives on.

Onizuka, a native of Kona and the first Asian-American astronaut to reach space, was among the crew members who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Out of the tragedy grew inspiration for countless students who view Onizuka as a hero and a role model, someone who grew up in the coffee fields of Kealakekua and excelled, reaching his dream of becoming an astronaut.

NASA astronaut Daniel Tani visited various schools on the Big Island and Oahu this week to talk about Onizuka. Tani also shared his experience from two space missions, one of which involved living in the International Space Station for four months from October 2007 to February 2008. Onizuka was a role model to Tani, who turns 50 next week.

On the Big Island about 650 people packed the Performing Arts Center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo over the weekend, the first time there was a standing-room-only crowd for Ellison S. Onizuka Science Day since UH-Hilo first hosted it 11 years ago.

Students from Konawaena Middle School recently created a tribute video at the Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center in Kona. In the video, seventh-graders Andrew Ollero-Heist and Carlina Sadumiano created a song called "Never Back Down" in memory of Onizuka. Ollero-Heist said, "At first I didn't think someone from my community can do something big like that. When I heard Ellison fulfilled his dream, it makes me want to do the same."

The following is part of a verse written by the two students:

"Heroes live long, but legends are forever, 'til the end of our time we'll cherish your story like a treasure. Doesn't matter if you're gone, to us you're still alive, and we carry memories of your soul deep inside, 'cuz you inspired our pride."

Earlier this week, Tani visited the Challenger Center Hawaii with Onizuka's younger brother, Claude, chairman of the Onizuka Memorial Committee. Claude Onizuka said his brother never forgot his roots, returning to Hawaii whenever he had a chance to share his experiences in space with the community.

Onizuka and others have continued his brother's mission in the community to keep his legacy alive and inspire youth. "We realize a lot of these middle-school students weren't around 25 years ago. It's our job to educate them and spread his message," Onizuka said.

For he and his family, the pain of their loss remains. "It's been 25 years since the Challenger accident. It was a long road to healing. Time heals everything, as they say, but at times when you think back, the hurt is still there," he said.

Onizuka was to go today to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, where his brother is interred.

Ellison Onizuka's widow, Lorna, who works at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Houston, and daughter Darien Onizuka-Morgan placed flowers yesterday at a memorial marker for Onizuka at the Astronaut Memorial Tree Grove in Houston.


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