Onizuka Space Center
A cute little museum in Kona, Hawaii
, about space exploration. It is named after Hawaii-born astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka, who – and here comes the dark bit – perished in the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986. Other space-exploration tragedies are covered as well, even though the main “message” of the museum is rather positive and a celebration of the space age.
What there is to see: The museum is quite small, and part of it resembles a slightly chaotic jumble room, where children's toys rub shoulders with serious scientific instruments and charts. I found it quite endearing from the start. The museum staff were also extremely friendly and welcoming!
The exhibition starts off as you might have predicted, with a section honouring its hero Ellison S. Onizuka. There are photos from different stages of his life, including on board a previous shuttle mission – eating space food with chopsticks (true to his Japanese ancestry). Furthermore there's a bust of the man, a large panel with some encouraging words of wisdom by him, and a small model of the space shuttle that he perished in.
Also honoured are the other six astronauts on board that fateful flight of January 1986, as well as those who died in other NASA disasters, esp. Apollo 1 (1967) and the Columbia space shuttle (2003).
The next section is more uplifting and chronicles the whole history of manned space flight, in particular the highly successful Apollo programme and the moon landings. They even have a genuine piece of moon rock on display! It was collected on the final landing by Apollo 17 in 1972. It doesn't look all that different from all the Hawaiian lava you can find along its volcanoes' slopes ...
The far corner section I found a bit chaotic and disorganized. Here you find scale models of the main rockets that took the first few manned space missions into orbit next to a Mars exploration section (with 3-D images) and a jumble of children's toys and all manner of other paraphernalia. Amongst the toys, however, are some truly endearing specimens, from a more modest space-suited Mickey Mouse to a fluffy space shuttle with big eyes where the cockpit would have been. Priceless!
Opposite this are two gyroscopes installed in a hands-on exhibit, next to this is a large glass display cabinet containing medals, plaques, models and photos relating to various NASA missions.
There's a smaller section up on a raised platform which is dominated by the largest of the various space shuttle scale models on display here. Adjacent to it is a display of shuttle heat shield tiles (which so failed the Columbia on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere in February 2003). There's also a section explaining Hawaii's links to space by means of the Mauna Kea observatories (see under Hawaii
) or NASA's training for the moon landings that was done in Hawaii's lunar-like volcanic
Back downstairs is another section about Ellison S. Onizuka, with displays of his flight suits, helmets and space food he had taken on the shuttle which underscored his Hawaiian origin: Kona coffee and macadamia nuts!
In a corner nearby stands what must be the museum's prize possession (maybe together with the moon rock): an Apollo spacesuit worn by F. Haise on the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission of 1970!
Highlights in the rest of the museum include an original operation manual for the space shuttle (showing technology that in this digitalized day and age almost looks antiquated, as well as a simulator in which you could have tried your own hand at operating an MMU – or Manned Maneuvering Unit, a self-propelled kind of space-suit extension used for untethered “spacewalks”. Unfortunately the simulator was out of order at the time of my visit.
The museum also has a shop which has quite a few interesting space-flight-related items (including samples of space food).
All in all I found the Onizuka Space Center a worthwhile stopover on my round trip of Big Island. Its dark-tourism credentials are admittedly limited, though I believe the links to the Challenger disaster and the dramatic story of Apollo 13 justify its inclusion in these pages.
at Kona airport, on Hawai'i
Island (aka Big Island), right next to the passenger terminals. Official address: 1 Keahole Airport Rd, HI 96745
Access and costs: easy enough to get to by car, or on foot from the airport; cheap.
Details: To get to the museum you either have to have your own transport, or use one of the airport shuttles. In theory it could be done while waiting for a plane, provided you can stay this side of security (which could be a problem if you have luggage). From the terminal buildings you can simply walk there. The museum is housed in a striking triangular building right at the centre of the complex, between the car parks and the terminals.
Coming by car is the most convenient way, but then you'll have the issue of parking, and the airport car park (the only feasible option really) costs in the region of 3 USD per hour.
Admission: 3 USD (children up to 12 years old: 1 USD)
Opening times: Mondays to Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., closed Sundays. At least that's what it said on the door when I visited in August 2015. The museum's brochure I picked up then still said 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. – but that's probably outdated.
Time required: I spent about an hour in this museum, others may be quicker, but if you want to read everything more closely and go through all the interactive stuff (provided it's working) you can easily spend even longer in here.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The other places of dark-tourism interest on Big Island Hawaii
are all on the “other” side of the island, in rainy Hilo on the east coast (Tsunami Museum
) and in Volcanoes National Park
Another thematically more related site in Hawaii is the “Punchbowl
” in Honolulu on O'ahu island. This is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, so mostly for war dead, but Onizuka was finally laid to rest here too. His remains had been recovered from the cockpit of the shuttle which had become detached during the explosion and plummeted back to earth for a long two and a half minutes before crashing into the sea.
The crew compartment's wreckage was later salvaged from the ocean floor and subsequent examination proved that Onizuka and at least one other crew member had still been alive and at least briefly conscious during the break-up of the shuttle and the cabin's descent.
The human remains of the “Challenger” astronauts (or what was left of them) were mostly interred at Arlington
, except for Onizuka's … who instead was allowed to return home, as it were.
To find Onizuka's grave you can use the “gravesite locator” computers provided in the Punchbowl's information centre by the main gate.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The area around Kona is the more mainstream part of Big Island Hawaii
's tourism infrastructure. It's here that you find the beaches and the beach resorts, the water sports, and so forth. (Which is why I stayed on the “other” side in Hilo and Volcano.)
Somewhat further off the mainstream beaten track are the coffee plantations that produce the world-famous Kona coffee. South Point is also within fairly easy reach. The peaceful and idyllic northernmost part of the island takes a little longer to get to.
- Onizuka Center 01 - at Kona airport
- Onizuka Center 02 - full official name
- Onizuka Center 03 - inside
- Onizuka Center 04 - in memoriam
- Onizuka Center 05 - the perished crew
- Onizuka Center 06 - the three worst disasters NASA has had
- Onizuka Center 07 - spacesuit worn on the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission
- Onizuka Center 08 - Onizuka clothes
- Onizuka Center 09 - Hawaiian space provisions
- Onizuka Center 10 - very hands-on exhibition
- Onizuka Center 11 - gyroscopes
- Onizuka Center 12 - rocket models
- Onizuka Center 13 - space memorabilia
- Onizuka Center 14 - moon rock
- Onizuka Center 15 - spacewalk simulator out of order
- Onizuka Center 16 - space monkey suit
- Onizuka Center 17 - space Mickey Mouse
- Onizuka Center 18 - fluffy soft toy space shuttle
- Onizuka Center 19 - large space shuttle model
- Onizuka Center 20 - space shuttle operating manual