What Your Mind Can Imagine: Asian Americans Exploring New Horizons

Your vision is not limited by what your eyes can see, but by what your mind can imagine. Many things that you take for granted were considered unrealistic dreams by previous generations. If you accept these past accomplishments as commonplace then think of the new horizons that you can explore. From your vantage point, your education and imagination will carry you to places which we won’t believe possible. Make your life count – and the world will be a better place because you tried.

This quote, from astronaut Ellison Onizuka, represents the spirit that President Ronald Reagan described when he said that the Challenger crew was “pulling us into the future”. As we continue to celebrate 2016 as the 30th anniversary of the founding of the original Challenger Center, we want to wrap up May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, to continue to honor those who made their lives count by exploring new horizons. Here are two astronauts who did just that:

Ellison Onizuka

Onizuka in the commander station

Ellison Onizuka, the first person of Asian heritage in space. Credit: NASA.

Here at the CLC, Ellison Onizuka is most well-known as one of the astronauts on the Challenger space shuttle’s final mission, but he had many accomplishments before his life was cut short. The grandson of Japanese immigrants, Ellison Onizuka was born and raised in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii. Ellison knew he was interested in space and earned a bachelor of science and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, then joined the U.S. Air Force. (Interesting note: May is also Military Appreciation Month  — so Onizuka has multiple reasons to be honored!)

Because of his military background, Onizuka was selected as one of the astronauts for the first classified Department of Defense shuttle mission, STS 51-C. His participation in this mission made Ellison Onizuka the first persion of Asian descent in space. His career trajectory was very uncommon for a boy from rural Hawaii, but that made it that much more inspiring — especially to people from Kona. In this profile produced by  Big Island Television, Ellison’s story is told by his little brother:

Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla in space

Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian (and Indian American) woman in space. Credit: NASA.

Dr. Kalpana Chawla grew up in a small town in India. Although she was a good student, she was never at the absolute top of her class — rather, she was a strong but well-rounded student, taking interest in extra-curriculars as well as academics. Bucking gender stereotypes, she earned a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering. She moved to the United States for graduate school, where she earned a master’s degree and PhD in aerospace engineering.   Chawla became a U.S. citizen before applying to and joining NASA, where she had several jobs before becoming an astronaut.

In 1997, Columbia mission STS-87 made Kalpana Chawla the first Indian woman in space. Chawla described it as far-fetched that a girl from a small town in India would have the opportunity to study engineering — let alone become an astronaut. And yet she did it, and became a particular inspiration in India, as a sign of what great things could be achieved if sexist systems were eradicated.

She returned to space in 2003, on mission STS-107. On this mission, she even talked from space with the Prime Minister of India — another example of her place as a national hero. Tragically,  the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry, killing Chawla and the other astronauts on board. To learn a bit more about Chawla, check out the India Time’s list of 7 Things You Need To Know About Kalpana Chawla.

“Your education and imagination will carry you…”

Like Ellison Onizuka, we at the Challenger Learning Center-St. Louis believe the educations and imaginations of young people can carry them to unbelievable places. This summer, we will be sparking imaginations and educating at the same time through our summer camps, and we want to make sure kids from all background have the chance to come. To help make this possible, will you consider sponsoring a child with financial need to attend camp? You can contact us to learn how.