Ronald E. McNair

By:Marie McAden


Photo of the Ronald E. McNair Memorial.
Ronald E. McNair Memorial.

Name: Ronald E. McNair

Born: Oct. 21, 1950

Died: Jan. 28, 1986

Background/significance: A renowned research scientist and one of America’s first African-American astronauts, Ronald E. McNair was a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986.

The son of an auto mechanic who never finished high school, McNair rose above his family’s financial struggles to become a star athlete, honor student, accomplished saxophonist and karate champion in his hometown of Lake City.

After graduating from North Carolina’s Agricultural and Technical State University with a degree in physics, he became a Ford Foundation Fellow and Presidential Scholar at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning his doctorate in laser physics at the age of 26.

McNair served as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in California for two years before being chosen from a pool of 1,000 applicants to join NASA’s space shuttle program in 1978.

He flew his first mission on the Challenger in 1984, operating the first use of the Canadian robotic arm to position crewmen around Challenger’s payload bay. He also was recognized as the world’s first orbital cinematographer, serving as the chief cameraman for the award-winning film, “The Space Shuttle: An American Odyssey.”

Two years later, he was assigned a second mission aboard the Challenger. Just 73 seconds after launch, the space shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members.

After his death, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program to encourage minority, low-income and first-generation college students to pursue graduate studies. MIT honored its former graduate by naming its space and science building after him.

South Carolina connection: Born in Lake City, McNair grew up during the racially segregated era of the 1950s. At the age of 9, he refused to leave the town’s public library without being allowed to check out his books. Today, the library is named in his honor.

A gifted student who never accepted being second best, McNair lettered in football, basketball and baseball, played in the Carver High School jazz band and was valedictorian of his high school class.

The humble country boy, who picked cotton and tobacco in the summers, went on to become a role model, challenging young people to study and work hard to achieve their dreams. Along with the library, a boulevard and middle school in Lake City bear his name.

Discover more: In 2011, the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center opened in Lake City adjacent to McNair’s gravesite, and a statue and square were erected in his honor. The museum features photos and artifacts that tell the story of the scientist and astronaut from his childhood to his death.

Numerous schools and parks across the country are named in his honor, including Ronald E. McNair Middle School in Lake City, which is the old Carver High School. His hometown also has a Ronald McNair Boulevard.

A crater on the moon is named McNair in his honor.

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