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Challenger space shuttle model to return to Little Tokyo

Isao Hirai, who built the Little Tokyo memorial of the Challenger, has restored it and will see it return to its home on Thursday.

July 07, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • Isao Hirai built the one-tenth-scale model of the Challenger space shuttle, which was the centerpiece of a memorial in Little Tokyo for 21 years. The model returns to Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday after four months of refurbishment.
Isao Hirai built the one-tenth-scale model of the Challenger space shuttle,… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Isao Hirai makes models for a living. You name it, he says, "Isao can do it."

Mars Rovers, glass office towers, body parts, sweeps of land — he's 77 and says he has yet to be stumped.

At his Scale Model Co. in Hawthorne, he once made two Wells Fargo stagecoaches, each small enough to be held with two hands but exact down to the spokes' proportions and the buttons on the interior upholstery.

Photos: Space shuttle Challenger

When Northrop Grumman asked for a 36-foot-long model rocket to display overseas, he knew it would be too big to build inside. So he made it in parts and pieced it together in his parking lot.

A government-ordered model of Yellowstone National Park — to show where a monorail might go — required 20,000 trees, he says casually, as if it is barely worth mentioning. He and his staff fashioned them out of toothpicks and chunks of foam they dyed green and then churned up into leaf-like clumps in a meat grinder.

"This is my life. Problem solving is my love," says this small man who exudes great joy, even when under tremendous deadline pressure.

On Thursday at 1 p.m., on Astronaut Ellison S. Onizuka Street in Little Tokyo, Hirai has a date he can't miss — with a crane.

It will be waiting to aid the return of his one-tenth-scale model of the Challenger space shuttle, which has lived on the one-block street for 21 years — minus the four months he's just spent restoring it in his shop.

Hirai's Scale Model Co. sits on a busy commercial stretch of West Rosecrans Avenue, between a garage-door maker and Piggie's, a fast-food restaurant.

Piggie's is flashy. On its bright yellow sign, swine in aprons stick out their tongues.

The Scale Model Co. from the outside could be any old garage. Inside, it looks like the cozy but very well outfitted backyard workshop of some sort of genius mad scientist.

The history of America's space stations — some built, some only proposed — hangs suspended from the ceiling in a series of small scale models he made for Rockwell. Floating nearby is a miniature futuristic hovercraft for the 1973 movie "Westworld" and the classic flying saucer of the 1960s TV show "The Invaders."

Much of Hirai's work is done with official blueprints for science's creme de la creme — the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, companies such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

But he also makes architectural models and models to help establish facts in trials. (He built a supermarket parking lot once to prove the design caused a woman to fall. She won her case.)

Occasionally, too, he gets requests from inventors. He produced the original prototype for the Water Pik.

He doesn't advertise, he says. It never worked anyway. People saw the name and called looking for scales. Occasionally, a young woman inquired about a modeling career.

Hirai was born in Sapporo, Japan, and was raised in a Japanese community in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Like a lot of boys, he made model planes from kits. But they quickly bored him and he moved on to building his own imaginary flying machines (which he sometimes still does). In school, he became interested in commercial model making, considered prestigious work in Brazil.

After a stint in Venezuela, he came to America in 1966, and joined the Scale Model Co. the next year as its first employee. He now owns the company and has a staff of six, including his wife, Brigitta. It's her job to keep him organized and to make sure he gets paid for work he probably would do for free. "She realizes we have to eat," he says, grinning sheepishly.

Brigitta, 58, who towers over her husband, also plays the role of booster, reminding him of all the wonders his little shop has produced. "Did you tell about the time Alex Haley came by?" she asks — which leads to reminiscing about the model that Haley commissioned of the slave cabins and farms he chronicled in "Roots." ("Your work is so superb that I've been exclaiming about it to nearly everyone with whom I've talked since this afternoon's visit to your firm," Haley wrote in a 1978 letter.)

Hirai felt honored to build the Little Tokyo model of the Challenger for Onizuka, of Kona, Hawaii, the first Japanese American astronaut and one of seven to die when the shuttle exploded on Jan. 28, 1986. Of the original commission from the Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Committee, he says, "My heart was there."

But he was not proud of the way his handiwork looked in March, when a crane pulled it off steel supports so rusted that it took 6,000 pounds of pressure to remove the 2,000-pound model.

Years of sun and smog had stressed the external tank's fiberglass, causing it to crack and split apart. And Hirai cringed at an attempt to spruce up the model with a fresh coat of paint.

He had built a model so precise in its markings that it could only be that shuttle as seen on that particular day, just before it blew apart 25 years ago, 73 seconds into flight.

The paint job, he said, not only got the colors wrong but covered up all that subtle specificity.

"It wasn't anymore the Challenger," he said. "It was terrible."

And that new paint was peeling off in curlicues. The memorial committee raised the money for the restoration.

On Thursday, buffed, shined, repainted and reinforced, Hirai's Challenger will make the trip downtown on the back of a long-bed truck. It is 18 feet, 4 inches tall at its highest point (the boosters) and will be placed on new supports atop the memorial's 7-foot-high base.

"It always gave me pain every time I came downtown to look at it," Hirai said of its previous worn state. "Now it's going to be different. I'm going to be extremely happy."

Photos: Space shuttle Challenger

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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