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Life of Ronald McNair

Ronald Erwin McNair (October 21, 1950 – January 28, 1986) was an American NASA astronaut and physicist. He died 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, he flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B aboard Challenger from February 3 to 11, 1984, becoming the second African American and the first Baháʼí to fly in space.


McNair was born on October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina to Pearl M. and Karl C. McNair. He had his two brothers, Carl and Eric A. McNair. In the summer of 1959, he refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library without being allowed to borrow his books. After the police and his mother were called, he was allowed to borrow books from the library. The library building from that time is now named after him. His brother Karl wrote Ronald’s official biography, In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair – Astronaut: An American Hero.

McNair graduated as valedictorian of Carver High School in 1967.

In 1971, he 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.

In 1976, he received a Ph.D. degree in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the guidance of Michael Feld, becoming nationally recognised for his work in the field of laser physics. Also in 1976, he won the AAU Karate gold medal. He would subsequently win five regional championships and earn a 5th degree black belt in karate.

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 a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and a member of the Bahá’í Faith.

How did Ronald McNair change world?

Ronald McNair was nationally recognized for his work in laser physics and was one of the thirty-five applicants selected by NASA from a pool of ten thousand. In 1984, McNair became the second African-American to make a flight into space. He was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger.

Ronald McNair (third in line) and his fellow Challenger astronauts head to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to board the space shuttle on Jan. 27, 1986.

Astronaut career

In 1978, McNair was selected as one of thirty-five applicants from a pool of ten thousand for NASA’s astronaut program. He is one of many astronauts recruited by Nichelle Nichols as part of NASA’s effort to increase the number of minority and female astronauts. He flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B aboard the Challenger from February 3-11, 1984, becoming the second African-American to fly in space.

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

Challenger disaster

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 was killed when Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds after liftoff. The disintegration also killed six other crew members.

Public honors

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.

  1. The crater McNair on the Moon is named in his honor.
  2. The McNair Building (a.k.a. Building 37) at MIT, his alma mater, houses the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.
  3. The McNair Science Center at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina
  4. The McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research at the University of South Carolina is named in his honor.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Several K–12 schools have also been named after McNair.
  8. A building on the Willowridge High School campus in Houston, Texas, is named in honor of McNair.
  9. There is a memorial in the Ronald McNair Park in Brooklyn, New York, in his honor.
  10. The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Playground in East Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, New York, is named after him.
  11. The Ronald E. McNair Space Theater inside the Davis Planetarium in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, is named in his honor.
  12. The Naval ROTC building on the campus of Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is named in his honor.
  13. The Engineering building at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina, is named in his honor. The university holds a McNair Day celebration annually.
  14. McNair was portrayed by Joe Morton in the 1990 TV movie Challenger.
  15. The song “A Drop Of Water,” recorded by Japanese jazz artist Keiko Matsui, with vocals by the late Carl Anderson, was written in tribute to McNair.
  16. The Jean Michel Jarre track “Last Rendez-Vous” was re-titled “Ron’s Piece” in his honor. McNair was originally due to record the track in space aboard Challenger, and then perform it via a live link up in Jarre’s Rendez-vous Houston concert.

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