The Story of the Last Page in Your US Passport — and the Soccer Ball That’s Gone to Space Twice

One of the defining moments of my childhood was the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986. I was 11 years old. The only way for 11 year olds to make sense of it is to detach from it and tell jokes. Crude jokes. Christa McAuliffe jokes.

Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American and the first Hawaiian in space. He coached his daughter’s soccer team, and the team all signed a ball for him to take into space that fateful day.


Credit: NASA

Classrooms around the country tuned in to watch that space shuttle launch. It was a routine occurrence at that point, but it was notable because a New Hampshire schoolteacher (McAuliffe) would be on board.

We didn’t know what happened at the time. Jeff Daniels breaks it down in season two of The Newsroom:

That soccer ball was on the shuttle. And despite the shuttle’s explosion 73 seconds into flight, personal effects were recovered from the wreckage. The soccer ball survived.

The players on the team presented Ellison with the ball, looking one last time at all their names and “Good Luck, Shuttle Crew!” written in careful strokes, knowing it was a way for each of them to be a part of the great human achievement of the time — a way to touch the heavens.

…What [Ellison Onizuka’s daughter] remembers most about seeing the ball for the first time after the accident is the ink. So much had happened, so much pain had been felt since each player had held this ball steady and written her name. How could this blue ink still be so bright?

Janelle cried. She cried the tears that make your face burn and your body ache. She cried for all the complicated things that came with losing her father so publicly and for the memory of him suddenly so alive, taking the ball from her and jogging across the practice field. She cried as she presented the ball back to Clear Lake High School, displaying it proudly during a ceremony that was supposed to have been led by her father.

That soccer ball was put on display at Clear Lake High School in Houston, where his daughter attended school near the Johnson Space Center.

Thirty years later it was noticed by the wife of another astronaut, a parent of a child at the school, and Col. Shane Kimbrough took that ball back into space — onto the International Space Station.

“It was a bit emotional just thinking about where this came from and what had transpired over these many years to get to that point,” Shane says. “I started thinking about their family and what it meant to them, and as a result, took some pictures and sent some down to them.”

…The ball spent 173 days in space on board the ISS. It orbited the earth nearly 3,000 times, passing auroras and constellations, wonders of the ancient world and sprawling cities of the modern. On April 10, 2017, it returned to Earth, its mission completed.

Kimbrough brought the ball back to Ellison Onizuka’s daughters, who then re-gifted it to Clear Lake High School.

In 1980 Ellison Onizuka gave a commencement address to his own high school in Kona, Hawaii. His words are memorialized in US passports.

The last page of your passport reads at the top,

Every generation 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.

(HT: M.F.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Awesome post Gary. Thank you for posting this story.

    I also love page 44 of my passport that says “It is immigrants who brought to this land the skills of their hands and brains to make it a beacon of opportunity and hope for all men.”

    Happy Fourth of July!

  2. I love that statement that is included in the US passport now. I lived in Atlanta for a time, living near the worse parts of town. Our church leader grew up there, had moved away for the hope of a better life, then came back to help motivate kids to see that they could do great things. Same as Mr Onizuka, aim high and you can do great things.

    I absolutely love this paragraph:
    “Lorna and Ellison were married on June 7, 1969, just one day after Ellison graduated from the University of Colorado and was commissioned second lieutenant in the Air Force. Forty-three days later, on July 20, the Onizukas settled in front of the television to watch one of the defining moments of human history: Neil Armstrong leaving the first footprint on the moon. It was also Lorna’s birthday, and as the couple toasted both events, Ellison couldn’t take his eyes off the television replays. To no one in particular, he said simply, “I’d like to take a shot at that.””

    I’m doing all I can to encourage my kids to aim for the stars! My 14 year old son is interested in either a pilot career in the USAF or to work in physical therapy…both very attainable things for him. And he’s just 14, I really wish I’d had someone pushing me toward my interests. I’m pleased with what I am today but I can’t help but think I’d be slightly different if I’d only pushed a little more, if I’d only worked to get to my dreams…

    Thanks for posting, Gary!

  3. @Facts matter wish they had enforced immigration laws more strongly when Trump’s grandfather came here as an unaccompanied minor that didn’t speak the language. Oh wait, nobody gave a damn back then. The only immigration laws on the books were overtly racist and current immigration policy is still overtly racist. I hope that when the millennial socialists take over, they institute open borders just like how the country used to be for the majority of its existence. Facts matter indeed.

  4. @Ray LOL And whose going to pay for all the freebies for the immigrants and the millenial socialists? Money just doesn’t grow on trees.

  5. @MF That is some grandiose plan you have for your kids. For me, my goal is to train my daughter to be a hooker and a skilled one at that. That would make me one proud (and happy) daddy.

  6. I’m not sure the soccer ball technically made it to space the first rime; but thanks for the interesting article!

  7. Fantastic story, thanks for posting it. Loved hearing about the soccer ball. I was watching Challenger while working from home and was horrified at what unfolded. What a great memorial for Ellison.

  8. @Gary – Great and interesting read, as always. It was an event that impacted my generation and my life and I never knew this story. Sincerely appreciate you posting on the eve of this nation’s birthday.

  9. No matter the subject there will always be those sore losers that have to bring in President Trump.

    In the words of obama “I won. Get over it”

    MAGA
    #WalkAway

  10. Great story! I didn’t know, so thanks for sharing.

    I was 9 when it happened, and, yes, we were watching live in my third grade classroom.

    Greg Jarvis, another astronaut on board, had a small Northeastern University flag with him (slightly bigger than the college car window flags you see before ballgames). It was recovered and now hangs in a display just outside my office at the university. I’m amazed that NASA was able to recover some of the personal effects, and I think about that quite often when I pass by the display.

  11. Very nice post, but: consider editing or deleting the first paragraph. It cheapens the rest of the post. Frankly, I’m not all that interested in your 11 year-old self, the bad jokes, etc.

    It would also be helpful to clarify that STS 51-L (Challenger) was his second shuttle mission, having previously flown STS 51-C on Discovery.

  12. Superb post. I always thought the redesigned passports (from 10 years ago) looked cheesy and jingoistic. I’ll appreciate them a lot more now, and pray God that the current administration doesn’t decide to do a revision with their own favorite quotes. Kudos to the functionary who thought of adding Onizuka’s words years ago.

  13. @ exdc Are you afraid of patriotic quotes? Maybe we can use some from the obamas like “You didn’t build that” or “Our Immigration System is broken” or maybe “For the first time I’m proud of my country.”

    I personally would like to see a quote from former ACLU president Nadine Strossen “I still think a lot of liberals aren’t aware [of] what a terrible president [Obama] was”

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