Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial: Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial

Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial

Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial

In Little Tokyo, on a street named for the first Japanese-American astronaut, you’ll find a tribute to the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger Seven.

Visitors to Weller Court in Little Tokyo can’t miss the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, pointing skyward, poised for blast-off. This scale model of the Space Shuttle Challenger, complete with booster rockets and bright orange fuel tank, stands nearly 20 feet tall atop a seven-foot tall pedestal of black granite.

The Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial sits in the center of Weller Court in Little Tokyo. Photo from the author’s collection.

On January 28, 1986, Challenger Flight 51-L exploded just 73 seconds after it took off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven crew members. The mission was the 25th flight for the Space Shuttle program — the tenth flight for Challenger — and the first fatal accident for NASA.

This model of the Space Shuttle serves as a memorial for the seven-member crew of the Challenger with a focus on Ellison S. Onizuka, NASA’s first Japanese-American astronaut.

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It’s a striking monument, and one easily spotted from either end of the short Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street, named in honor of the aforementioned astronaut. The bright orange fuel tank really makes it stand out against the sky and near-constant construction that’s been going on along the single-block street for nearly half a decade.

Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial

This scale model shuttle, which was created for a cost of $350,000, was created by Isao Hirai, the president of the Scale Model Company (based in Hawthorne). To create an accurate model of Challenger, Hirai followed illustrations provided by Rockwell International, the company who built the actual shuttle for NASA.

The monument is crafted of steel-reinforced fiberglass. The shuttle itself stands 12 feet tall, while the twin solid fuel boosters and fuel tank are just over 18 feet in length. The whole structure is attached to its pedestal with a pair of steel poles.

The upward-pointing shuttle subtly mimics Los Angeles City Hall. Photo from the author’s collection.

Hirai had previously made two other scale model versions of Challenger for memorials that were held shortly after the shuttle exploded in 1986. Each of those were only 1/25 scale, so the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial in Weller Court is much larger.

The monument was originally dedicated on October 19, 1990. But after its first 21 years, the 2000-pound shuttle had taken a bit of a beating. The paint was peeling and the structure was starting to crack from its long exposure to the harsh Southern California sun.

The shuttle was removed from its rusting supports in March 2011 and sent back to the Scale Model Company. Hirai and his team spent four months inspecting, repairing, and reinforcing the scultpure. It was then given a new coat of paint (the original paint job wasn’t NASA accurate) and re-installed in Weller Court on July 7, 2011. The restoration cost $70,000.

Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial

While the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial is a tribute to the seven-member crew of Challenger‘s final mission, the sculpture’s main focus is a tribute to one crew member — Hawaiian-born Ellison Shoji Onizuka, NASA’s first Japanese-American astronaut.

A bas-relief likeness of Colonel Onizuka, sculpted in bronze by Joseph Hernandez, is prominently mounted on the front of the black granite pedestal and gives the briefest summary of the man’s life in English and Japanese.

The bronze bas-relief image of Colonel Ellison S. Onizuka. Photo from the author’s collection.

In addition to the plaque honoring Onizuka, two other plaques, one on each side of the monument, pay tribute to crew of the Challenger 51-L and the U.S. Space Program. A fourth plaque is mounted on the back of the pedestal that lists the names of all the donors who helped make the monument possible.

Another Nearby Memorial …

Another Space Shuttle Memorial

There’s another memorial to the fallen astronauts of the Space Shuttle Challenger right next to the Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation in the Valhalla Memorial Park in Burbank. This memorial also honors the fallen astronauts from the Columbia disaster, when the Space Shuttle broke up on re-entry on February 1, 2003.

Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial / Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial

  • 135 Astronaut Ellison S Onizuka St (in Weller Court), Little Tokyo
  • GPS Coordinates: 34.050045, -118.241937 [ Google Maps ]
  • what3words: ///worm.slap.shiny

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Tom Fassbender is a writer of things with a strong adventurous streak. When not exploring Los Angeles, he’s been known to enjoy a cup of coffee or two. You can find him at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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