What do a Houston high school, a soccer ball, and space exploration have in common? 

Well, buckle up for a story that is out of this world! 

It is not uncommon to find children whose parents are astronauts at Clear Lake High School. The school is about 4 miles from the Johnson Space Center located in Houston, Texas. Most children who attend this high school have at least one parent who does some kind of work for NASA. So when Ellison Onizuka was set to go up in space on the space shuttle Challenger the students and school were ready to experience this event. The whole world was ready to see the 7 crew members take off in this once-in-a-lifetime event since this was the first time that a civilian would head past the Earth’s atmosphere. 

(FILE PHOTO) Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion
Getty Images

On January 28, 1986 people were glued to their television sets across the world to witness Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher go up into space on the space shuttle Challenger. But little did people know that there was so much more happening on the Challenger that morning. Ellison Onizuka was one of the crew members that was eagerly waiting in the cockpit on January 26, 1986. However, what the world didn’t know is that he had opted to take a soccer ball that was signed by his daughter's soccer team from Clear Lake High School with him as one of his personal items. That soccer ball would come to be one of the most important items on that space shuttle in the next coming days and weeks. 

At 11:39 am on January 28, 1986, as the Space Shuttle Challenger sped towards space an O-ring failed and caused the shuttle to split into pieces just 73 seconds into its tenth flight, killing all seven crew members that were on board. As the world watched in horror as the events unfolded no one even thought about what may be found in the wreckage. Over the next weeks and months, the United States Coast Guard pulled 14 tons of debris from the Atlantic Ocean, one piece of debris being a black duffle bag that held a soccer ball. After looking into who carried the soccer ball on the space shuttle it was offered back to the Onizuka family. Lorna Onizuka, Ellison’s wife, knew that her husband would have wanted the school to have the soccer ball so Ellison’s daughter, Janelle presented the ball back to Clear Lake High School in a ceremony that her father was supposed to host. The ball was then placed in a trophy case that was located in the main hallway of the school. Unfortunately, over the years other trophies that the school earned were placed in front of the ball and it slowly became a relic of the past, shoved in a back corner of the trophy case. 


That was until one parent emailed the principal, Karen Engle, to ask if he could build the soccer ball its own display case. As Engle read this email she couldn’t believe it. There was no way that a soccer ball survived that blast, much less ended up at Clear Lake High School and has been sitting in a display case across from her office. The principal was completely shocked when she saw the soccer ball with her own eyes and read the words, “Good Luck Shuttle Crew” written across the front of the ball. 

But the story doesn’t stop here…

A few days later at a school basketball game Col. Shane Kimbrough, a close family friend, approached Engle to ask if she had anything from the school she would like to send up into space. See, Kimbrough was also an astronaut and was heading back to the International Space Station in a few months. Engle proceeded to tell him about the soccer ball and its immense history and story. Both agreed that it was a great idea to send the soccer ball back into space so that it could hopefully complete its mission this time around. 

On October 19, 2016, Expedition 49 launched off of Earth’s ground with Col. Shane Kimbrough and his personal item of the soccer ball from Clear Lake High School. The ball spent 173 days on the International Space Station and orbited the Earth roughly 3,000 times before coming back to Earth on April 10, 2017. After returning home the soccer ball was once again dedicated back to the school where it now sits in its own display case. Thousands of students, teachers, and visitors pass the ball each day including Ellison’s grandchildren who also attend the school. 

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