Fans witness historic handoff at Creek-Lake football game

Former JSC Director Mike Coats, in black, and NASA astronaut Col. Shane Kimbrough, at left, assist Lorna Onizuka during the Historic Handoff of the soccer ball that was aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it went down and was found and taken to the space station before the presentation to Clear Lake High Principal Karen Engle at CCISD Challenger Columbia Stadium. At right are Cheryl McNair, widow of Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair (immediately to Lorna’s left), and JSC Acting Deputy Center Director Vanessa Wyche.

By Eva deCardenas

Nov. 3, 2017 marked the poignant end of a 31-year journey for a soccer ball, a family and a school.

During halftime of that Nov. 3 Clear Lake High versus Clear Creek High Friday football game, a special reunion took place bringing people bound together by a soccer ball that was intended to fly on the Space Shuttle Challenger 51L mission in 1986.

Challenger Astronaut Col. Ellison Onizuka had originally intended to take the ball on his journey into space on the ill-fated flight. His daughter, Janelle Onizuka, was a member of the Clear Lake High soccer team in 1986. She and her teammates had signed the soccer ball before giving it to her father before the flight.

Soon after the Challenger accident, the soccer ball was discovered in the accident debris and eventually returned to Clear Lake High School. Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough offered to take the soccer ball with him on his recent mission to the International Space Station, allowing the ball to complete its journey into space.

The Nov. 3 game was the backdrop for the very special return of the soccer ball to its original owners. After the Clear Lake High marching band set the stage with their halftime performance, Space Odyssey, Col. Kimbrough presented the soccer ball to Janelle Onizuka.

“This ball has been on quite a journey,” Col. Kimbrough said. “Over 73 million miles, it’s orbited our planet 2,768 times, it’s been in every module of the International Space Station and now it’s my distinct honor to present it back to the Onizuka family.”
The Onizuka family in turn handed over the space artifact to the principal, Dr. Karen Engle, and Clear Lake High, where the ball may continue to signify a journey of many miles, and perseverance, to all who view it.

Lorna Onizuka also presented a signed photograph of the Space Shuttle Challenger crew to Dr. Engle. “It is very special because there are not very many of them. But I would like very much for Clear Lake High School to have this,” Onizuka said.

Also on field for the special presentation were several members of the 1986 soccer team and their coach, Amy Woolsey; Cheryl McNair, widow of Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair; former astronaut and former Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coats; former astronauts Loren Shriver, Jim Buchli and Mike Fincke; JSC Acting Deputy Center Director Vanessa Wyche; Clear Creek ISD Superintendent Dr. Greg Smith, Dr. Engle and Clear Lake High School Soccer Coach Jered Shriver.

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