The Onizuka Soccer Ball

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Ellison Onizuka was a careered Air Force test pilot, flight engineer and American astronaut. He was born and raised in Kealakekua, Hawaii. He flew on Space Shuttle missions for the Discovery and Challenger.

He, of course, was tragically killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. El, as he was often referred to, was a warm and loving father. He was an assistant coach to The Lady Falcons, the Clear Lake High School girls soccer team. Tony Malinowski at ESPN writes:

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.

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.

Truly heartbreaking. But, brings joy to my heart that his daughter and her teammates got to see Ellison one last time before the disaster. Ultimately, the ball made it’s way to space after all. In 2016, on Expedition 49 the ball was whisked to the ISS. It spent 173 days aboard. A reminder of El’s determination and destiny, and personally a reminder of our frail mortality. A lovely gesture.

It also turns out, Ellison gave a compelling and inspiring commencement to his high school alma mater in 1980 — his words have been honored and immortalized in millions of US passports.

His expanded quotation reads:

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. You’ver 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.

Per aspera ad astra 💫

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