Next Cygnus Cargo Ship Named for Challenger Hero Ellison Onizuka

During STS-51C in January 1985, Ellison Onizuka became the first Asian-American to voyage into space. Photo Credit: NASA

Northrop Grumman Corp. has revealed that its next Cygnus cargo ship to visit the International Space Station (ISS) will be named for STS-51L hero Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian-American person to enter space. Onizuka becomes the first member of the ill-fated “Challenger Seven” to be so honored with a Cygnus, after two previous missions were named for Columbia veterans Rick Husband and Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla.

“He made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the space program,” Northrop Grumman said of Onizuka, “and his legacy lives on in his fellow astronauts and all who he has inspired and taught to fly.” The NG-16 mission will be lifted to orbit by an Antares 230+ booster from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., with launch expected no sooner than 5:55 p.m. EDT on 10 August.

Video Credit: Northrop Grumman Corp.

Ellison Shoji Onizuka was born in Kealakekua, in the western Kona distract of Hawaii’s Big Island, on 24 June 1946. He was the eldest son and second-youngest child of Japanese-American parents and attended local schools, before entering the University of Colorado at Boulder to earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering in 1969.

Onizuka then entered the Air Force, serving as a flight test engineer and test pilot at Sacremento Air Logistics Center at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacremento, Calif., and in 1974 was accepted into Test Pilot School. Graduation the following year brought a position as a squadron flight test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. He also served as a manager for engineering support in the training resources division and logged 1,700 flying hours.

In one of relatively few images ever publicly released from STS-51C, astronauts Loren Shriver (bottom), Ellison Onizuka (left) and Jim Buchli pose for a photograph in Discovery’s flight deck. Photo Credit: NASA

In late 1977, Onizuka applied to join NASA’s Astronaut Corps and in October of that year was invited to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, for a week of physiological and psychological evaluations. Selected as a shuttle mission specialist in January 1978, he completed a year of Astronaut Candidate (ASCAN) training and worked in several support roles, including software verification in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL).

Onizuka received his first shuttle flight assignment in October 1982, when he and three other astronauts—Ken Mattingly, Jim Buchli and Loren Shriver—were assigned to STS-10, the first dedicated Department of Defense mission, then planned for the fall of the following year.

Onizuka is pictured in the Mission Specialist No. 1 seat (second from left) during STS-51L pre-launch training. Photo Credit: NASA

However, its primary payload was to be powered by a Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster, which had encountered difficulties on an earlier mission and STS-10 found itself remanifested as STS-41E and eventually STS-51C. Eventually targeted for a December 1984 launch, STS-51C met with additional delay when shuttle Challenger suffered 4,000 debonded heat-resistant tiles and Onizuka’s ship was switched to Discovery.

Launched on 24 January 1985, STS-51C remains the record-holder for the shortest “operational” shuttle mission, lasting just 73 hours. In addition to Onizuka, Mattingly, Buchli and Shriver, the crew also included the Air Force’s first Manned Spaceflight Engineer (MSE), Gary Payton. But STS-51C would earn itself ill-starred repute in the final report of the Rogers Commission—the 1986 presidential inquiry into the cause of the Challenger tragedy—for Discovery launched in exceptionally cold weather conditions and endured severe temperature-related damage to the O-ring seals in her Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs).  

Ellison Onizuka (left) listens to instructors during classroom training with fellow members of the STS-51L crew. Photo Credit: NASA

Two days after returning from STS-51C, Onizuka was reassigned to STS-51L, the mission which would spell the end of his short life. Originally scheduled for November 1985, STS-51L—whose core NASA crew also included Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, Judy Resnik and Mike Smith—was tasked to deploy a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and later also picked up the Spartan solar physics free-flying payload.

By the time STS-51L was launched and lost in 73 horrifying seconds on 28 January 1986, the crew had expanded to seven with the addition of Hughes engineer Greg Jarvis and Concord, N.H., schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Posthumously promoted to colonel in the Air Force, Onizuka was laid to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. He left a wife and two daughters.

Video Credit: NASA

“Every generation,” Onizuka once said, in words now enshrined on the back flyleaf of the U.S. Passport, “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.”

More than three decades after his death, Onizuka—in spirit, at least—will once more rise beyond the atmosphere to the high plateau that he once beheld on STS-51C. The NG-16 Cygnus mission is expected to lift around 8,200 pounds (3,700 kg) of experiments, equipment and supplies to the incumbent Expedition 65 station crew, including another modification kit in support of the ISS Roll-Out Solar Array (iROSA) system. This will be installed by spacewalkers late next month as an initial step toward fitting new solar arrays to augment Power Channel 4A on the station’s P-4 truss element.

The NG-15 Cygnus is grappled by the space station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2, shortly before departure last month. Photo Credit: NASA

The uphill load of experiments on NG-16 includes Redwire Regolith Print (RRP), jointly developed by Made in Space, Inc., of Jacksonville, Fla., and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) of Huntsville, Ala. Led by Principal Investigator Michael Snyder of Made in Space, the experiment will utilize the 3D printer currently aboard the ISS to demonstrate the feasibility of using in-situ resources on planetary bodies to provide raw materials for construction of habitats, landing pads and other structures.

It will use what is described as “regolith simulant material”—an analog of the loose rock and soil found on lunar or planetary surfaces—to produce 3D-printed samples to assess compressive, tensile and flexural strength characteristics.

The most recent Cygnus cargo ship, the NG-15 “Katherine Johnson”, departed the ISS in late June. Photo Credit: NASA

Also aboard NG-16 is a University of Kentucky and NASA experiment called Capsules, which will deploy from Cygnus during its re-entry phase to evaluate an affordable Thermal Protection System (TPS). Capsules consists of three Kentucky Re-entry Universal Payload System (KRUPS) units, to be tested through actual hypersonic re-entry conditions, following a previous series of high-altitude stratospheric balloon trials.

And MSFC’s 4-Bed Carbon Dioxide Scrubber will head to the station to demonstrate advanced life-support capabilities for deep-space missions. Shipped last month from MSFC in Huntsville to Wallops Island, Va., the scrubber will remain aboard the ISS for about a year, helping to recycle and regenerate most of the air and water needed to sustain the crew. It forms one of two next-generation Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) technologies—alongside the Thermal Amine Scrubber, launched aboard the NG-11 Cygnus, back in April 2019—to undergo testing on the station.

The NG-16 Cygnus will carry about 8,200 pounds (3,700 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies for the Expedition 65 crew. Photo Credit: NASA

The new 4-bed scrubber is an upgrade to the existing Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly (CDRA), with benefits included a reduced power consumption, improved thermal stability and longer lifespan of the absorbent materials. After its year-long demonstration phase is done, it will be fully integrated into the station’s closed-loop recycling system for at least three additional years to evaluate its viability for longer missions.

NG-16 will also fly the Prototype Infrared Payload (PIRPL) for the Department of Defense’s Pentagon-headquartered Space Development Agency (SDA). Contracts worth $13.8 million were awarded to Northrop Grumman by the SDA in June 2020 for a medium-field-of-view multispectral imager for Overhead Passive Infrared (OPIR). “Upon arrival at the ISS,” Northrop Grumman explained, “PIRPL will begin collecting infrared data which will define possible for expanding detection capabilities. The data collected will aid the development of algorithms for the next generation of tracking satellites.”

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