A visit in the early 1980s by astronaut and Kealakekua native Ellison Onizuka to Waiakeawaena Elementary School turned out to be a life-defining event for at least one student of the Hilo school.
“I may have been seven or eight years old, and he was such a big deal,” said U.S. Space Force Col. Mia Walsh, who was then Mia Tsutsumi. “He was the first astronaut from Hawaii. He was the first Japanese American astronaut. He was the first Buddhist astronaut. It was a huge deal. You know, he came from a small town in Kona, kind of similar upbringing.
“And I just knew, right then, I wanted to go to space. I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to work in the space field.”