Named after Colonel Ellison S. Onizuka, Hawaii's first NASA astronaut, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is the primary destination for those who wish to experience the wonders of astronomy at Hawaii's finest observatory. The Center's Visitor Information Station (VIS) is located at the 9,300-foot level of Mauna Kea. A plaque showing Onizuka's face can be seen mounted on a boulder just outside the entrance.
The VIS is open from 9am to 10pm, 365 days a year. Staff members are on duty, along with Mauna Kea Rangers, to answer any questions visitors may have. From 10am to 10pm, telescopes are also available for public use here.
One popular feature of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is its free Stargazing Program. From 6pm to 10pm nightly, the public is invited to view the heavens with trained observers. The program begins with a short documentary film about Mauna Kea made by PBS Hawaii. Entitled "First Light,'' it delves into the history of the volcanic mountain from astronomical and cultural perspectives.
After the film, visitors go outside on the VIS lanai. There, a number of telescopes have been set up by staff and volunteers for star viewing. Throughout the evening, various objects in the night sky can be seen through the lenses, including planets, galaxies, open clusters of stars, globular clusters, double stars, nebulae, and supernova remnants. The staff members also provide a star tour using a laser pointer. They point out the various constellations and bright objects that are visible on any given night.
Another popular feature of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy is the Summit Tour Program held on weekends. Participants must arrive at the VIS by 1:00 PM on Saturday or Sunday in order to join the caravan to the top of Mauna Kea. Four-wheel vehicles are recommended, as the route can be quite steep in places and slippery with ice in the winter months.
Following a brief orientation at the VIS, the drive to the summit takes about half an hour, following the posted speed limit of 25 miles an hour. The tour stops at least one of the Mauna Kea Observatories to observe the heavens through one of the large telescopes, such as the 8.1-meter Gemini or one of two 10-meter telescopes operated by Caltech. The formal tour concludes around 4:30 pm, when participants may return or stay a little longer at the summit.
Throughout the day, a solar telescope is provided for viewing at the VIS. It has been aimed at the sun and equipped with protective filters. The VIS has a bookstore and food for sale, and hot water containers are provided along with a microwave for visitors' convenience. Restrooms are also available here 24 hours a day.
To get to the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Information Station from Hilo, drivers should take the Puainako Extension to Saddle Road (State Highway 200). Just before mile marker #28, a road appears to the right with a sign that says "Mauna Kea Access Road.'' Follow this road six miles to the VIS on the right side of the road. The drive takes about one hour from Hilo, and coming with a full tank of gas is highly recommended. Fuel is not available for purchase on Mauna Kea, and the nearest gas stations are about 30 miles away.
Onizuka Center for International Astronomy also has a business office in Hilo where administrative functions are carried out and mail is delivered. The address is 177 Maka'ala Street, Hilo, Island of Hawaii, Hawaii 96720-5148.