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Ronald McNair

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Ronald McNair
McNair in 1978
Ronald Erwin McNair

(1950-10-21)October 21, 1950
DiedJanuary 28, 1986(1986-01-28) (aged 35)
North Atlantic Ocean
EducationNorth Carolina A&T State University (BS)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MS, PhD)
AwardsCongressional Space Medal of Honor
Space career
NASA astronaut
Time in space
7d 23h 15m
SelectionNASA Group 8 (1978)
STS-51-L (disaster)
Mission insignia
Scientific career
ThesisEnergy Absorption and Vibrational Heating in Molecules Following Intense Laser Excitation (1977)
Doctoral advisorMichael Stephen Feld

Ronald Erwin McNair (October 21, 1950 – January 28, 1986) was an American NASA astronaut and physicist. He died at the age of 35 during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51-L, in which he was serving as one of three mission specialists in a crew of seven.

Prior to the Challenger disaster, McNair flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B aboard Challenger from February 3 to 11, 1984, becoming the second African American in space.



Ronald Erwin McNair was born in Lake City, South Carolina, October 21, 1950,[1][2] to Carl C. McNair, an auto repairman, and his wife, a high school teacher named Pearl.[3] Growing up alongside his older brother, Carl S.,[4] as well as his younger brother, Eric,[5] McNair grew up in a low-income household, his home having lacked both electricity and running water.[6] The family later moved into a better, though still poor-quality household following the death of McNair's grandfather. His older brother, writing in a posthumous biography about McNair, described how the family "covered the floor and furniture with pots and pans to catch the water dripping through the roof" when it rained.[4] In the summer of 1959, McNair refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library without being allowed to check out his books. After the police and his mother were called, McNair was allowed to borrow books from the library; the building that housed the library at the time is now named after him.[7] A children's book, Ron's Big Mission, offers a fictionalized account of this event.

McNair graduated as valedictorian of Carver High School in 1967.[8]

In 1971, McNair received a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering physics, magna cum laude, from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina.[9] At North Carolina A&T, he studied under professor Donald Edwards, who had established the physics curriculum at the university.[10]

In 1976, McNair received a PhD degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the guidance of Michael Feld, becoming nationally recognized for his work in the field of laser physics. That same year, McNair won the AAU Karate gold medal. He would subsequently win five regional championships and earn a fifth-degree black belt in karate.[11]

McNair received four honorary doctorates, as well as a score of fellowships and commendations. He became a staff physicist at the Hughes Research Lab in Malibu, California. McNair was also a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.[9]

Astronaut career

First three African-American astronauts to go to space, including McNair, Guy Bluford and Fred Gregory from the class of 1978 selection of astronauts.

In 1978, McNair was selected as one of 35 applicants from a pool of 10,000 for the NASA astronaut program. He was one of several astronauts recruited by Nichelle Nichols as part of a NASA effort to increase the number of minority and female astronauts.[12] McNair flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B aboard Challenger from February 3 to 11, 1984, becoming the second African American to fly in space.

Astronaut candidates Ron McNair, Guy Bluford, and Fred Gregory wearing Apollo spacesuits, May 1978

Challenger disaster

Challenger crew: (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik

Following the STS-41-B mission, McNair was selected for STS-51-L as one of three mission specialists in a crew of seven. The mission launched on January 28, 1986. He and the other six crew members were killed when Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean, 73 seconds after liftoff.[9]

McNair was initially buried at Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Lake City, South Carolina. His remains were disinterred in 2004 and moved to Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park, located elsewhere in Lake City.[13]

Music in space


McNair was an accomplished saxophonist and jazz enthusiast.

Before his last fateful space mission, McNair worked with French composer and performer Jean-Michel Jarre on a piece of music for Jarre's then-upcoming album Rendez-Vous. It was intended that McNair would record his saxophone solo on board the Challenger, which would have made McNair's solo the first original piece of music to have been recorded in space[14] (although the song "Jingle Bells" had been played on a harmonica during an earlier Gemini 6 spaceflight). However, the recording was never made, as the flight ended in the disaster and the deaths of its entire crew. The final track on Rendez-Vous, "Last Rendez-Vous," has the subtitle "Ron's Piece," and the liner notes include a dedication from Jarre: "Ron was so excited about the piece that he rehearsed it continuously until the last moment. May the memory of my friend the astronaut and the artist Ron McNair live on through this piece."[15] McNair was supposed to have taken part in Jarre's Rendez-vous Houston concert through a live feed from the orbiting Shuttlecraft.

Public honors

Dr. Ronald E. McNair memorial in his hometown, Lake City, South Carolina
Dr. Ronald E. McNair tomb in his hometown, Lake City, South Carolina
Ronald McNair Park in Brooklyn, New York City
Ronald E. McNair South Central Police Station of the Houston Police Department in Houston, Texas

McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004, along with all crew members lost in the Challenger and Columbia disasters.

A variety of public places, people and programs have been renamed in honor of McNair:

  • The crater McNair on the Moon is named in his honor.
  • The McNair Building (a.k.a. Building 37) at MIT, his alma mater, houses the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.
  • The McNair Science Center at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina
  • The McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research at the University of South Carolina is named in his honor.
  • The McNair Park & Recreation Center in Pompano Beach, Florida is named in his honor.
  • Ronald McNair Boulevard in Lake City, South Carolina is named in his honor and lies near other streets named for astronauts who perished in the Challenger crash.
  • The Quailbrook East development in Somerset, New Jersey has streets named after the Challenger and each of the seven astronauts.[16]
  • The U.S. Department of Education offers the TRIO Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program for students with low-income, first-generation students, and/or underrepresented students in graduate education for doctorate education.
  • On January 29, 2011, the Lake City, South Carolina library was dedicated as the Ronald McNair Life History Center.[8] When Ronald McNair was nine, the police and his mother were called because he wished to check out books from this library, which served only white patrons before he arrived. He said, "I'll wait," to the lady and sat on the counter until the police and his mother arrived, and the officer said, "Why don't you just give him the books?" which the lady behind the counter reluctantly did. He said, "Thank you, ma'am," as he got the books.[7] The episode, as recalled by his brother Carl McNair, has been depicted in a short animated film.[17][18][19]

Personal life


McNair was married to Cheryl McNair, and they had two children.[35] Cheryl is a founding director of the Challenger Center, which focuses on space science education.[36]

See also





  1. ^ "Biographical Data: Ronald E. McNair (Ph.D.) NASA astronaut (deceased)" (PDF). NASA. Retrieved June 23, 2024.
  2. ^ "Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair, Ph.D." California State University San Marcos. Retrieved June 23, 2024.
  3. ^ "Ronald E. McNair Program: Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D." University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Retrieved June 23, 2024.
  4. ^ a b McNair & Brewer 2005, p. 8.
  5. ^ McNair & Brewer 2005, p. 15.
  6. ^ Olivares, Beth (January 28, 1996). "A call to aim high: African-American astronaut inspires student liftoff". Democrat and Chronicle. University of Rochester. p. 17. Retrieved June 23, 2024.
  7. ^ a b "Astronaut's Brother Recalls A Man Who Dreamed Big". NPR. January 28, 2011. Retrieved November 18, 2012.
  8. ^ a b Smith, Bruce (February 11, 2011). "Small SC town pauses to remember astronaut son". Bay State Banner. Retrieved January 7, 2023.
  9. ^ a b c "Ronald E. McNair (Ph.D.), NASA Astronaut (Deceased)" (PDF). NASA.gov. Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. December 2003. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  10. ^ Feinsilver, Ethan (January 28, 1999). "Speakers Link Ronald McNair to Today's A&T: An Annual Tribute to the Late Challenger Astronaut Seeks to Inspire Students at His Alma Mater". Greensboro News & Record. Retrieved August 18, 2022.
  11. ^ "Ronald McNair Biography". September 14, 2020. Retrieved October 21, 2021.
  12. ^ "Space History Photo: Nichelle Nichols, NASA Recruiter". Space.com. January 3, 2014. Retrieved July 21, 2022.
  13. ^ "Ronald E. McNair". discoversouthcarolina.com. SC Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  14. ^ "The history of synthpop". Archived from the original on March 10, 2012. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  15. ^ "Challenger 25th Anniversary Tribute Song". Between Two Worlds. January 28, 2011. Retrieved June 19, 2020.
  16. ^ Google (August 20, 2023). "McNair Ct, Franklin Township, NJ 08873" (Map). Google Maps. Google. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  17. ^ Popova, Maria (June 6, 2016). "Eyes on the Stars: Astronaut Ronald McNair, Who Perished in the Challenger Disaster, Remembered by His Brother in an Affectionate Animated Short Film". brainpickings.org.
  18. ^ "Eyes on the Stars". storycorps.org. StoryCorps. January 28, 2013. Retrieved February 22, 2021. On January 28, 1986, NASA Challenger mission STS-51-L ended in tragedy when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. On board was physicist Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African-American person to enter space. But first, he was a kid with big dreams in Lake City, South Carolina.
  19. ^ Rauch, Mike; Rauch, Tim (April 4, 2013). "Eyes on the Stars". imdb.com (Documentary, Animation, Short, Biography, Drama, Family). Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  20. ^ "Los Robles Ronald McNair Academy". ravenswoodschools.org. Archived from the original on September 1, 2009. Retrieved January 28, 2011.
  21. ^ "McNair Elementary School". hazelwoodschools.org. Archived from the original on April 19, 2014. Retrieved April 18, 2014.
  22. ^ Bryan, Shevaun (August 5, 2014). "New school, old building: first day of school at McNair Junior High". Huntsville, Alabama: WHNT-TV. Retrieved September 7, 2014.
  23. ^ "Alvin ISD Board Members Approve New Facility Name". alvinisd.net. Alvin Independent School District.
  24. ^ Hague, Jim. "In a Class By Itself". Jersey City Magazine, Spring & Summer 2011, p. 55.
  25. ^ "Fourth-Masonic-District". mwphglmd.org. Archived from the original on January 18, 2017. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  26. ^ "City of El Lago Park Information". ellago-tx.gov. Archived from the original on March 18, 2014. Retrieved September 16, 2013., last accessed September 16, 2013.
  27. ^ "Dr. Ronald E. McNair Park, Crown Heights, Brooklyn". bridgeandtunnelclub.com. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  28. ^ "Historical Sign Listings : NYC Parks". nycgovparks.org. Retrieved May 18, 2012.
  29. ^ Walsh, Kevin (January 28, 2018). "Dr. Ronald E. McNair Park, Prospect Heights". Forgotten-NY.com.
  30. ^ "Dr. Ronald McNair Playground". nycgovparks.org. Retrieved November 23, 2012.
  31. ^ Dixon, Tonya (January 16, 2020). "Annual Celebration of Ronald McNair by N.C. A&T to be Held Jan. 28" (Press release). North Carolina A&T State University. Retrieved July 16, 2021.
  32. ^ "TRIO – Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program – About". mcnairscholars.com. University of Central Florida. Retrieved May 2, 2018.
  33. ^ "TRIO – Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program". ed.gov. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  34. ^ "The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Scholars Program – Program Services". mcnair.wsu.edu. Washington State University. Retrieved May 2, 2018.
  35. ^ "Wife of astronaut Ron McNair reflects on Challenger disaster". www.cbsnews.com. January 28, 2016. Retrieved February 1, 2023.
  36. ^ "Cheryl McNair". Challenger Center for Space Science Education. 2019. Retrieved August 20, 2023.

Works cited