On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift off, killing all seven astronauts aboard. One of the crew, Ellison S. Onizuka, had become the first Japanese American astronaut the year before when he flew on a secret mission aboard the shuttle Discovery.
The Japanese American community in Los Angeles was deeply moved by the death of Onizuka for he had often visited Little Tokyo on his trips to Los Angeles and was the Grand Marshall of the 1985 Nisei Week Parade.
Isao Hirai, president of the Scale Model Company in Hawthorne, was commissioned to execute a model of the Challenger. He proposed a 1/10th scale model of the Challenger to fit the size and scale of the site. Like two earlier 1/25th scale models of the shuttle he constructed shortly after the Challenger exploded (one was displayed in a 1987 memorial service at the Nishi Hongwangi Temple), the model for the Onizuka Memorial was constructed from drawings supplied the builder of the shuttles, Rockwell International. Because of small differences in the design and exterior painting between each shuttle and each mission, all three of Hirai's models replicate the appearance of the Challenger on its last flight.
The shuttle for the Onizuka Memorial is 12'6" long, while the total length of the boosters, shuttle and fuel tank is 18'4". Each component is made of fiberglass reinforced on the inside with aluminum plates. Steel posts connect the shuttle to the 7' pedestal.