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Eyewitness to history

NASA liaison remembers the Challenger disaster

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April 12th, 2016
Greenspring resident and former NASA executive Tak Kato remembers the Challenger and its crew.

Greenspring resident and former NASA executive Tak Kato remembers the Challenger and its crew.

Thirty years ago, on January 28, 1986, Americans watched in horror as the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. The disaster resulted in a 32-month hiatus in the NASA space shuttle program. 

Shortly after the tragedy, President Ronald Reagan, in his “Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger,” remarked, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”

Tak Kato, the Japanese lead liaison to NASA and director of the Houston Liaison Office for the Space Station Freedom program, will never forget that day or the colleagues who were lost.

At the time of the tragedy, Tak, who now lives at Greenspring, an Erickson Living community in Springfield, Va., was meeting with colleagues at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“We watched live on television as the Challenger was launched from Cape Canaveral,” he says. “After the explosion, I remember some of the NASA engineers getting up one-by-one and leaving,” he says. 

Personal ties

While the disaster shocked all who witnessed it, Tak mourned for his own personal connection to the Challenger crew. The year before the explosion, he hired Lorna Onizuka as his personal secretary. 

“She was fluent in Japanese, which was a great help to me,” he says. 

Lorna Onizuka was also the wife of NASA astronaut Ellison Onizuka, one of the seven crew members who perished in the Challenger explosion. 

In the days following the disaster, Tak served on the coordination team for the members of the Japanese government attending the Challenger crew’s memorial service at Johnson Space Center. He, too, attended the emotional event.

“After a few, short months, Lorna came back to work,” says Tak.

In an interview with NASA in May 2015, Lorna Onizuka remarked, “I never felt a resentment or bitterness toward the agency itself. The people that my husband and I considered our immediate environment of community and friends—they were still the same people.

“I could sense every day—and this is so much the truth—not a day went by that I didn’t feel I was cared for by my NASA family.”

Staying connected

Tak, too, remained committed to NASA and the growing space program. Following the Challenger tragedy, he moved to the Washington, D.C., area, to serve as director of the Reston Liaison Office for the Space Station Freedom program. 

The program, which was a NASA project and had the support of Canada, Japan, the United States, and countries of the European Space Agency, intended to build and launch a permanently manned Earth-orbiting space station.  Eventually, the project morphed into the International Space Station program.

“Following the tragedy, politics played a bigger role in the space program,” he says. “That is why the space station project was moved closer to NASA headquarters.” 

Lorna Onizuka did not follow Tak to Washington, D.C., but continued working for NASA in Houston. 

“There was a lot of important activities going on in Houston,” says Tak. “After the tragedy, it was the site of equipment testing, science, and new missions.”

On September 29, 1988, the Space Shuttle Discovery was successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center. It was the first space shuttle mission since the Challenger disaster.

In 1993, Tak moved back to Japan to serve as the project manager for the development of an International Space Station cargo ship.  

Five years later, he returned to Houston to serve as vice president for the next eight years of JAMSS America, a system engineering organization supporting the National Space Development Agency of Japan, where he began his career in 1972.

In 2010, Tak retired from JAMSS America and moved to Greenspring with his wife Linda. In addition to making many new friends, he enjoys swimming, tai chi, meditation classes, and square dancing. 

“The Challenger disaster showed us that launching anything into space—people, satellites, space stations—is risky business,” he says. “But I’m happy that the important work continues.”