Editor’s note: Thirty-five years ago, on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, and all seven members of the crew were killed. This story, about the soccer ball that survived, was originally published on June 29, 2018.
THE LAST TIME Lorna Onizuka spoke to her husband, she mentioned milk. She and their two daughters, Janelle and Darien, wouldn’t be able to have cereal the next morning because she’d left the milk on the porch and it was frozen solid. The temperature that night in Cape Canaveral, Florida, dropped to 18 degrees, well below the average low of 50. This would become important later, but for now, it affected only breakfast.
It was late, later than her husband, Ellison, should have been up, but he was restless inside the crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center and wanted to know whether there was news about tomorrow. Lorna turned on the TV at the house they had rented for the occasion and relayed what she saw: The 10th flight of the space shuttle Challenger was a go.
“I guess we’re going to launch tomorrow,” Ellison said on the other end of the telephone.
“I guess so,” Lorna replied.
There on Lorna’s television, inside the 4.4 million-pound launchpad assembly, inside the space shuttle, inside the crew cabin, inside a locker, inside a black duffel bag, was a soccer ball.
As the Onizuka girls woke up on Jan. 28, 1986, and found something else for breakfast, the ball sat in Ellison’s locker on board the shuttle. As the crew buckled into their seats and countdown progressed, it was just a ball. But at 11:39 a.m., it became a relic.
CLEAR LAKE HIGH School is perhaps the only place in the country where it’s not all that strange to be the child of an astronaut. Its campus is just 4 miles from Johnson Space Center in Houston, and many of the Falcons have at least one parent whose paycheck comes from NASA.
In January 1986, “Rocky IV” was in theaters, gas was 93 cents per gallon and Janelle Onizuka was sitting through her sophomore classes at Clear Lake, waiting to get to soccer practice. All week, the team had been passing around a ball to sign. It was just a practice ball, a little scuffed up and not the best brand. By all accounts it was unremarkable, except for one very remarkable fact: Janelle’s dad, Ellison, was going to take it into space.
Ellison and Lorna were big fans of the Lady Falcons. El was an assistant coach for the team, though his former players said it was hard to take him seriously when he assigned drills. Sternness just didn’t suit him, especially when he was trying to avoid cracking a smile. With Ellison’s quick wit and Lorna’s sweet demeanor, the two became fast friends with the other parents and coaches. If he was on earth, Ellison tried his best to never miss a game.
“He was supposed to be in quarantine, and he would sneak out just to see a little bit of the game,” Lorna says. “None of us would know until we’d see him at the corner of the fence. When we’d look up, he’d be gone.”
The mid-January evening that Ellison came to pick up the ball was one of those nights he was supposed to be in quarantine. Janelle hadn’t seen him for weeks; the astronauts were kept isolated before missions to avoid getting sick. But there he was, jogging across the practice field, and suddenly the whole evening buzzed with the electric feeling of being part of something special as a kid — literally, in this case, part of something far beyond your own small world.
The players on the team presented Ellison with the ball, looking one last time at all their names and “Good Luck, Shuttle Crew!” written in careful strokes, knowing it was a way for each of them to be a part of the great human achievement of the time — a way to touch the heavens.
Janelle said goodbye to her dad and watched as he jogged back across the field with the ball in his hands, jumping, carefree, across a little ditch.
“I’ll always remember this night,” Janelle later wrote. “I can still smell the grass on the practice field. It is quite literally my last fond memory of my dad face-to-face.”
KEALAKEKUA, HAWAII, SITS on the western side of the Big Island. It’s a rural community and was even more so when Ellison Onizuka was born there in June 1946, less than a year after the conclusion of World War II. Hawaii wouldn’t become a state for 13 more years, and the Visitors Bureau was just beginning to promote tourism. As Ellison was growing up, the rhythm of the town rose and fell with the coffee season.
The town’s high school even operated on a “coffee schedule,” moving summer vacation to August through November so children could help harvest the coffee cherries. In those fields, lying on his back in the shade of the coffee trees, Ellison first wondered what was beyond the things he could see with the naked eye, what was even higher than the birds flew.
In 1961, when Ellison was a freshman in high school, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. Ellison didn’t get to see it as it happened; it would be decades before Hawaii got same-day television broadcasts.
After graduating from high school in 1964, Ellison came to the mainland to study aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado, where he met Lorna. “He didn’t look like a nerd, but I wondered if he was one,” she remembered. “He was president of the student engineering association, but it turned out that he had a wonderful sense of humor.”
Lorna and Ellison were married on June 7, 1969, just one day after Ellison graduated from the University of Colorado and was commissioned second lieutenant in the Air Force. Forty-three days later, on July 20, the Onizukas settled in front of the television to watch one of the defining moments of human history: Neil Armstrong leaving the first footprint on the moon. It was also Lorna’s birthday, and as the couple toasted both events, Ellison couldn’t take his eyes off the television replays. To no one in particular, he said simply, “I’d like to take a shot at that.”
THE FIRST TIME Ellison’s younger daughter felt scared about her father’s job was at a night viewing in January 1985. Eight-year-old Darien Onizuka stood on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center and looked up — way up — at the 184-foot-tall space shuttle system spotlighted against the darkness. It was already poised skyward, ready to carry her dad into the cosmos. Later, she wrote in her diary that it looked so powerful, like a monster all lit up, and that we are very small.
The next morning, Jan. 24, 1985, Ellison sat in Seat 3 on the flight deck aboard the space shuttle Discovery as countdown began. On the roof of the launch control tower, just over the edge of the designated buffer zone, the Onizuka girls squinted against the Florida sun as 7.8 million pounds of thrust reverberated through the air and right into their chests. Discovery rose higher and higher until it was just a dot, and they were the same.
On that mission, Ellison became the first Asian-American, the first Japanese-American and the first Hawaiian in space. Even orbiting 212 miles above Earth, he brought along something that transported him back to his life as a boy in Hawaii: a bag of Kona coffee straight from his hometown.
When Ellison returned, Lorna noticed he was quiet. She would find him sitting by the fire in a moment of reflection, brought back to earth only by the sound of the kids’ happy chatter. As the girls ran off and the quiet settled in around him, a simple fact kept surfacing: He wanted to go back.
JAN. 28, 1986, was cold in Cape Canaveral. Just before dawn, the temperature on the launchpad was 22 degrees — far colder than any previous NASA launch. The Onizuka girls were in the reception area of the launch control tower, staying warm while the kids colored and the grown-ups visited. There was much more media coverage than normal. By then, shuttle launches had become almost routine, but on that day, America was putting its first civilian in space, New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Classrooms around the country were watching live thanks to a special NASA broadcast feed.
As the count progressed, the astronauts’ families were brought up to the roof to watch the launch. Over on Launchpad 39B, Ellison was again in Seat 3 on the flight deck. In his locker — along with a family picture with the governor of Hawaii, a lotus charm for his Buddhist faith, a football from his alma mater, the University of Colorado, and a pennant from his high school — sat the soccer ball.
The countdown approached zero, the solid rocket boosters ignited and somewhere in the right booster, a 0.280-inch-wide O-ring failed due to the cold. The failure allowed heated, pressurized propellants to leak out onto the external fuel tank, causing catastrophic structural failure. Seventy-three seconds into its 10th flight, the space shuttle Challenger broke apart, killing all seven members of its crew. It was 11:39 a.m. Ellison Onizuka was 39 years old.
On the roof of the launch control tower, the families of the crew desperately searched the twin trails of smoke that twisted skyward for signs of the crew cabin. They were rushed back inside, purses and cameras left behind. Everyone was silent. The last thing Lorna remembers about that day is being brought into a conference room with the other families to be told the crew was lost. Upon hearing the news, she fainted, hitting the light switch as she slid down the wall. Everything went dark.
“At that very moment,” Lorna says, “all the lights went out because all the lights did go out in all of us.”
IN THE DAYS and weeks that followed, life for Lorna, Janelle and Darien was sharply divided into a before and an after.
Television and radio were full of coverage about the Challenger disaster. For a stunned nation, it quickly became a defining “where were you when” moment. A personal loss for seven families became a public moment of mourning for American identity of the time, as the explosion rocked confidence in NASA and the shuttle program. It was the first national tragedy broadcast live on television and the first in-flight loss of astronauts in NASA history.
Then-President Ronald Reagan addressed the country and paid tribute to the seven crew members — Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe and Ellison Onizuka — who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” There were memorial services, and the fate of future space travel was contemplated. The Onizukas’ mail carrier delivered bundle after bundle of letters from around the world.
The nightly news featured shots of the U.S. Coast Guard pulling pieces of wreckage from the Atlantic — large, anonymous chunks of metal that didn’t resemble the whole. In total, 14 tons of debris was recovered, the largest salvage operation in Coast Guard history. What didn’t make the news was a small duffel bag that was plucked from the surface of the blue-black water, one of the few items recovered intact.
The months wore on, and life began to take on a new semblance of normal for the Onizukas. Lorna put all the mail into the attic. Janelle’s sophomore year at Clear Lake wound to a close. Then, with the investigation into the accident completed, NASA began to notify the families of any recovered personal effects. Lorna was told about the ball and was asked if she’d like it back.
“I wouldn’t have wanted the ball to become a recovered artifact sitting in a locked vault somewhere, archived forever,” Lorna says. “If there was any speak left in these items, El would have wanted it to speak.”
What she remembers most about seeing the ball for the first time after the accident is the ink. So much had happened, so much pain had been felt since each player had held this ball steady and written her name. How could this blue ink still be so bright?
Janelle cried. She cried the tears that make your face burn and your body ache. She cried for all the complicated things that came with losing her father so publicly and for the memory of him suddenly so alive, taking the ball from her and jogging across the practice field. She cried as she presented the ball back to Clear Lake High School, displaying it proudly during a ceremony that was supposed to have been led by her father.
For the rest of Janelle’s time at Clear Lake, the space shuttle program remained on hiatus. The ball found a home in a trophy case in the hallway opposite the main office, where thousands of students and their parents — many a part of the NASA community in one way or another — passed by it. They had vowed to continue the mission of the Challenger Seven, to keep the human spirit of exploration alive. But just as the Onizukas struggled to find their way without Ellison, NASA struggled to regain the confidence of the public. Both had no choice but to push forward.
CLEAR LAKE HIGH School in 2016 wasn’t all that different from what it was when Janelle walked its halls in 1986. There were updates to the building, new technology was on display and children replaced their parents as the student body — but it was still the place where the astronauts’ kids went to school.
In the 30 years since the Onizukas lost Ellison, the soccer ball was dwarfed in its case by newer, bigger trophies as Clear Lake collected accomplishments worthy of display. The signatures, once so clear and vibrant, faded so badly that they were almost unreadable. Year by year, it settled deeper into the background of the life that bustled past it.
That is until the Clear Lake High School principal, Karen Engle, got an email from a parent. He was leaving a booster club meeting and stopped to look at the ball, remembering it from so long ago. He figured it should have its own display case, and he offered to build it.
Karen didn’t believe him at first. She’d seen the Challenger explode. There was no way a soccer ball survived that — and if it had, there was no way it had been sitting in a display case just outside her office. She walked out into the hallway and looked at it closely through the glass. There was no plaque or dedication, nothing explaining what it was or all that it had survived. Just a bunch of faded signatures. Maybe the parent was mistaken; maybe it was just an old championship ball.
But as she looked closer, there in faded ink were the words that made her realize what she’d unknowingly walked by since her first day as principal: “Good Luck, Shuttle Crew!”
A few days later, there was a basketball game at Clear Lake. There to see his twin daughters perform on the dance team was Col. Shane Kimbrough, an astronaut on the International Space Station. Karen’s husband worked closely with Shane at NASA, and they stopped to catch up at the game. Shane’s second mission to the ISS was coming up soon, and he extended an offer: Was there anything at the school that Karen would like him to bring up to space?
When Karen mentioned the ball, Shane knew it was a great idea. He knew what Lorna had known — the ball still had so much to say. After Karen gave it to Shane, she noticed the date: Jan. 28, 2016. It was exactly 30 years after the Challenger disaster.
ON OCT. 19, 2016, Expedition 49 launched successfully — carrying two Russian astronauts, Shane and the soccer ball into low earth orbit, eventually docking aboard the International Space Station.
On earth, Janelle Onizuka’s soccer ball weighed 14.5 ounces. Two hundred and fifty-four miles above Clear Lake, Shane placed the ball into the ISS observatory to take a photo. It stayed there, suspended against the backdrop of the earth — finally weightless.
“It was a bit emotional just thinking about where this came from and what had transpired over these many years to get to that point,” Shane says. “I started thinking about their family and what it meant to them, and as a result, took some pictures and sent some down to them.”
In its age, the ball is worn and flaked and looks almost tired against the vibrant blue of Earth and the metallic shine inside the ISS. It looks like a time traveler, a relic from another era, continuing on a mission in place of the Challenger Seven.
“It was a little bit of an old ache that comes back, but at the same time, it’s all the feelings that I felt when El flew,” Lorna says. “Happy, gratified, thankful, very thankful that it’s finally made its way to where El would have wanted it to go.”
The ball spent 173 days in space on board the ISS. It orbited the earth nearly 3,000 times, passing auroras and constellations, wonders of the ancient world and sprawling cities of the modern. On April 10, 2017, it returned to Earth, its mission completed.
Shane returned the ball to the Onizuka girls, but Lorna knew it ultimately belonged in the place where its journey began. In a November ceremony, she dedicated it back to Clear Lake High School, where it once again rests in a display case — this time all its own — and is passed by thousands of students per day, including Ellison’s grandchildren.
In 1980, Ellison went back to his high school in Kona, Hawaii, to deliver a commencement address. You may not know it, but you carry some of his words with you in your own earthly exploration, printed in every U.S. passport.
“Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds … to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation. Your vision is not limited by what your eye can see, but what your mind can imagine. If you accept these past accomplishments as commonplace, then think of the new horizons that you can explore. … Make your life count, and the world will be a better place because you tried.”
Additional reporting by E:60 features producer Max Brodsky