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Model of Challenger space shuttle arrives back home in Little Tokyo

July 7, 2011 |  6:54 pm


A newly restored one-tenth-scale model of the space shuttle Challenger returned Thursday to its Little Tokyo home of the last 21 years -– atop a memorial to Ellison Shoji Onizuka, the first Japanese American astronaut and one of seven astronauts who died when the shuttle exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.

Quite a few of those who came out to Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street to watch the model be hoisted back into place by a crane said this was the closest they would ever get to a space shuttle launch.

At 1 p.m., when the big moment was scheduled, people clutching cameras positioned themselves for the best views, lining the balcony of the Weller Court shopping center on one side of the monument as well as the roof and each level of the parking garage across the little pedestrian walkway on the other side.

And some noted wryly, as the scheduled time came and went without any action, that the day now had the authentic feel of those big Cape Canaveral events.

The weather was not a factor here, though the long wait felt meltingly hot. But there were some other unexpected hitches in the model's return from its four-month overhaul at the Scale Model Co. in Hawthorne, where it was built in 1990.

Parts of the fresh paint job looked a little thickly applied, which required some last-minute scraping, said model maker Isao Hirai, the company's president, who showed up wearing a T-shirt that chronicled the history of the space shuttle program, listing each launch on the back as a rock band's T-shirt might list tour dates.

The crane was a bit late too, and didn't arrive with the specialty cords that would allow it to lift the model slowly from horizontal to vertical without damaging it. So someone had to bring them -– in L.A. traffic, from Long Beach.

Some spectators left without seeing anything more dramatic than the 2,000-pound model's arrival -– horizontal on a longbed truck -- followed by the arrival of the crane, followed by fretting.

The cords -– in crane lingo, nylons -– were in place by 2:45 p.m. And just after 3 p.m., the model began to hover, still horizontal, and then slowly lift up to about a 45-degree angle. Moments later it was pointing straight up above the memorial, over the steel supports that would hold it in place. Two Scale Model Co. workers -– Fernando Guerrero and Salvador Hernandez -– climbed onto the 7-foot-high base and nudged the model into position.

It was gently lowered and everyone clapped and cheered.

"There it goes. Oooh," said Masayo Nishiwaka, 82, of Pasadena, one of the many Japanese Americans who stayed to see the model safely home. Nishiwaka, who like Onizuka was born in Hawaii, had arrived at 1 p.m. with her sisters and various in-laws, waited awhile, went for lunch and returned in time for the big moment. "It's wonderful, a really proud occasion, isn't it? We're very fortunate that we were able to watch this."

Representatives were on hand from the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Committee, which commissioned the model 21 years ago and will raise the $70,000 or so to cover its restoration. The committee's treasurer, Herb Omura, a retired bank executive, said he was proud to have known Onizuka personally. He described him as "such a nice person, down to earth, a beer man."

When it was all over, news crews -– largely from the Japanese media -– surrounded the model maker, Hirai, to pose him in front of his work.

Some of the spectators, who had read about Hirai, said they had come as much to see him as the model.

"You've got to give this guy a lot of credit," said Alberto Hinojos, 58, a retired bus driver who made the trip from Covina. "He's allowing Angelenos to enjoy an era of space history that has come to an end."

-- Nita Lelyveld

Photo: A flatbed truck transports the model along Alameda Street en route to Little Tokyo. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times