January 26, 2016 – University of Colorado Boulder alumni Ellison Onizuka and Kalpana Chawla, astronauts who died in NASA space shuttle accidents 17 years apart, will be remembered on campus Saturday, January 30.
CU-Boulder cadets from the Air Force ROTC and the Arnold Air Society will hold the memorial for Onizuka, Chawla and the 12 other NASA astronauts who perished in the two disasters. Challenger exploded off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, shortly after launch on January 28, 1986, killing Onizuka and six other astronauts. Columbia disintegrated during Earth atmosphere re-entry over Texas and Louisiana on February 1, 2003, killing Chawla and her six NASA crew mates.
The January 30 event will begin at the south entrance of Regent Hall just off Regent Drive and Broadway at 9 a.m. with an invocation, a speech by Squadron Commander Courtney Geisert and a presentation of colors. A procession to the Columbia Memorial next to Fiske Planetarium will follow. The procession will continue to the Challenger Onizuka Memorial on the north side of the College of Engineering and Applied Science near Folsom St.
Wreaths will be laid at both memorials, and 14 roses will be laid at the Onizuka Memorial in honor of the 14 lost astronauts, each of whom will be commemorated.
Onizuka and Chawla each made two shuttle flights.
Onizuka received his bachelor’s and masters’ degree from the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences (AES) in 1969. Chawla received her doctorate from AES in 1998. The January 30 ceremony is two days past the 30th anniversary of the Challenger accident and two days prior to the Columbia accident.
“The annual memorial to our two fallen CU-Boulder astronauts allows us to mourn their loss and at the same time remember their many contributions to the university,” said Professor Penina Axelrad, chair of AES. “Both brought enthusiasm and excellence to our department as students, returning regularly to campus as NASA astronauts and connecting with faculty, staff and students on a very personal level. They were true pioneers whose courage and vision inspires CU aerospace students to explore.”
There were several CU-Boulder payloads and experiments on Challenger, including the Spartan Halley satellite that was to be released from the shuttle to gather data on the legendary comet and a sophisticated camera system to image the comet from inside the space vehicle.
In 1986, Professor David Klaus of aerospace engineering was working as a NASA shuttle launch controller at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California. “We were looking at the images and telemetry during the Challenger launch, and it was immediately clear that something bad had happened,” he said. What was to be a future space shuttle launch and landing site for NASA, the Shuttle Launch Facility at Vandenberg was shut down after the Challenger explosion.
“When I pause to remember my friends who perished with the Challenger and Columbia, I also think about their legacy,” said AES Scholar in Residence and former NASA astronaut Jim Voss, who flew five space shuttle missions between 1991 and 2001. “The changes that resulted from those tragic losses made flying in space safer for all who followed and helped us continue to explore and discover.”
Professor Emeriti Robert Culp of AES was Onizuka’s advisor during his years at CU-Boulder. “Ellison would come to my office, and we would talk about aerospace for hours,” said Culp. “After he became an astronaut he would come back periodically and visit with us and give talks to our students. Students love to talk to astronauts, of course, and he was always interested in helping the university in any way he could.”
Chawla had two advisors while conducting her doctoral research at CU-Boulder: Her first advisor, Professor C.Y. Chow, and her second advisor, Culp. “She was a bubbly, friendly and a very smart person,” said Culp. “Everyone enjoyed being around her.”
She returned to CU-Boulder after she became a NASA astronaut, both to visit and to train on state-of-the-art hardware and experiments designed and built by faculty and students at BioServe Space Technologies. BioServe, a center in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering department, regularly flew space shuttle payloads during the lifespan of the NASA program and continues to fly payloads to the International Space Station, completing its 50th mission last month.
Klaus, a former associate director of BioServe, recalled that most of the Columbia crew, including Chawla, were on campus about a year before the accident, working with BioServe equipment and experiments that they would operate in space. Klaus said he has fond memories of the BioServe team and the Columbia astronauts having dinner together in downtown Boulder after one of the training sessions.
Culp remembers one of his final visits with Chawla when they designed a CU flag for her to take up as a memento on the ill-fated Columbia mission. “It was almost too much for us, first losing Ellison and then losing Kalpana,” he said. “But all of us who knew them have nothing but great memories.”
There are 18 CU-Boulder astronaut-affiliates who have flown in space.