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Looking back as the future looms; Astronauts, family and first-time visitors attend Onizuka Space Center’s final event

The Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center’s last event Sunday attracted astronauts, family, friends and first-time visitors.

“The last 30 years, it’s really gone by fast,” said Ellison Onizuka’s brother, Claude, in opening remarks to a packed room, stairwell and platform in the Kailua-Kona facility.

The museum honors Onizuka, one of seven astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster Jan. 28, 1986. It also sought to expand interest in science learning and space exploration.

Onizuka grew up in Kealakekua and graduated from Konawaena High School before attending college and joining the Air Force.

Although the museum will remain open into March, many people came to Sunday’s event because as it was the museum’s last, including the ohana of Dennise Alviento and Larry Cabanas, whose daughter, Aurora Cabanas, was busily inspecting how light operates through refracting lenses.

Alviento said she read about the museum’s closing and made sure they visited. She read a lot about Onizuka’s life, she said, but never visited the museum before.

Aurora was working her way through one of the many interactive sections of the museum, carefully sorting out the colors of the visual light spectrum and learning how to move things in space.

The science exhibits are bolstered with information about the past and future of space exploration and memorabilia of Onizuka’s life.

Some of those include photos from his first trip into space Jan. 24, 1984, where he served as a mission specialist. One photo shows him about to bite down on a macadamia nut in zero-gravity. Another has him and mission pilot Loren Shriver smiling at the camera on their mutual first trip.

Shriver was present during Sunday’s event, along with his wife, Susan, and current astronaut Michael Fincke.

During his speech, Shriver recalled that Onizuka was wonderful to fly with, fully committed to the mission and full of details about the technical elements of the task at hand.

He also could “cook a mean luau,” Shriver said.

Shriver’s visit in some ways bookended the existence of the museum, as he also was there for its opening in 1991.

“Loren hand-carried the moon rock here from NASA in a canister, but we’re not ready to have him take it back yet,” said Claude Onizuka.

The museum hopes to find a location to at least display the memorabilia of Ellison Onizuka after its closure, said Claude Onizuka.

It are is looking at ways to do science outreach and continue to encourage space exploration, and there has been some discussion about possibly starting a science scholarship, he said.

“It’s been 30 years. We’ve been appreciative of the support,” he said, as the state provided funding for building the site and has supported it since.

The museum will close in March because of the redesign of Kona International Airport. The center is trying to find a new location.

Politicians also honored Ellison Onizuka, with the county presenting a plaque, a joint resolution by the state House and Senate honoring him and Gov. David Ige declaring Dec. 28 as “Ellison S. Onizuka Day” in Hawaii.

A group of legislators also introduced a bill to rename the airport to Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, which has been referred to committee.

Email Graham Milldrum at gmilldrum@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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