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Ronald McNair

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Ronald McNair Astronaut

Born October 21, 1950, Ronald Erwin McNair grew up in Lake City, South Carolina. His parents were Pearl M. and Carl C. McNair. His mother was a teacher and his father was an automobile mechanic. Ron could read and write before going to school and because of his mechanical genius, he was called by the nickname of "Gizmo." Ron McNair overcame many barriers in his lifetime. He lived in a segregated America because segregation did not "officially" end until 1963. Ron's life ended tragically during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51-L that exploded 1 minute 13 seconds after launch. This biography is a celebration of the inspirational life that Ron McNair lead.

In the summer of 1959, Ron refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library until he was allowed to check out some books. (African Americans were not allowed to check books out of the library.) The librarian called the police and his mother. The police arrived before his mother, as Ron politely sat waiting. In the end, Ron had accomplished his mission, he was allowed to borrow books from the library. In 2011, the Lake City Library was dedicated as the Ronald McNair Life History Center.

Ronald Erwin McNair

Ronald Erwin McNair
NASA Astronaut

As a student at Carver High School, Ron starred in baseball, basketball, and football. In 1957, the launch of Russian satellite Sputnik introduced Ron to the space age. He was very impressed as a teenager by the television series of Star Trek where he saw people of different colors and backgrounds working together in harmony on the starship Enterprise. He played the saxophone in the school band. He earned money while in college playing saxophone in a rhythm and blues band at campus clubs and high school dances. Ron was also became highly skilled in karate. He won the 1976 AAU Karate Gold Medal and five regional championships, eventually achieving the rank of fifth-degree Black Belt.

McNair graduated as valedictorian of Carver High School in 1967. (This school was named after the great George Washington Carver, agriculturalist and inventor.) After graduation Ron attended the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering physics, graduating magna cum laude in 1971. In 1976, he earned a Ph.D. degree in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he studied laser technology.

Ron had worked for two years on specialized laser physics research for his doctorate. The data he had gather for two years was stolen, but he managed to produce a second set of data and earned his Ph.D. in physics in 1976. Ron's dissertation was titled, "Energy Absorption and Vibrational Heating in Molecules Following Intense Laser Excitation." Ron worked with the chemical lasers that had been recently invented. These used chemical reactions to excite molecules in gases like hydrogen fluoride or deuterium fluoride and to produced the stimulated emission of laser radiation.

Ronald McNair  memorial at theLife History Center
Ronald McNair Life History Center Memorial

Because of Ron's pioneering laser work, he was a recognized expert on chemical and high-pressure lasers. He went to work for Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, where he worked on the development of lasers for isotope separation and research on electro-optic modulation for satellite space communications.

At St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge, MA, Ron McNair attended services and founded a karate school for church youngsters. He met Cheryl B Moore at the church and they were married there in 1976. In 1982, their son, Reginald Ervin, was born and in 1984, their daughter Joy Cheray was born.

Selected as an Astronaut

While working at Hughes Research Laboratories, Ron learned that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was looking for scientists to join the Shuttle program. From 10,000 applicants, Ronald McNair was one of 35 selected into the Astronaut Candidate Class in January 1978. He completed his training in August.

When Ron flew as a NASA mission specialist on STS 41-B that launched from Kennedy Space Center on February 3, 1984, he was the second African-American to fly on the Shuttle. (Colonel Guion Buford, a member of Ron's 1978 Astronaut Candidate class was the first.) This was an historic mission because astronaut Bruce McCandless became the first person to perform a space walk without a tether. Ron operated the shuttle’s robotic arm during this mission and worked with live rats for life investigations. An accomplished saxophone player, Ron brought his instrument aboard the flight and was able to play his music on the Space Shuttle.

McNair playing Sax on space shuttle
Ron McNair playing Sax on STS-41b Mission

Ronald McNair was selected to fly on the Space Shuttle challenger for the 51-L mission planned as the first Teacher in Space Project (Christa McAuliff), to launch a communications satellite, and to observe Halley's Comet for six days. Ron was very excited because he was to play a saxophone solo on Challenger for composer Jean Michel Jarre's album Rendez-Vous and participate in a concert via live feed. He was practicing as often as possible before the flight.

Because of the Teacher in space project, many school children were watching the launch on that fateful day. The explosion occurred shortly after launch, leaving families, students, and NASA officials in shock. An accident investigation was undertaken (the Rogers commission), but nothing will ever bring back the precious lives that were lost. We are left to remember their inspirational lives and carry on their mission.

Challenger 51-L mission crewmembers
The Crew of the Challenger 51-L mission

Other members of the Challenger crew, that must be mentioned here, were commander Francis (Dick) Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, mission specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, civilian teacher-in-space, Christa MacAuliff, and Hughes Aircraft engineer, Gregory Jarvis.

This video offers a personal look at Ron McNair. Keep watching until you see the speech he gave to the graduating class at the University of South Carolina.

Ronald McNair has been showered with honors after his tragic death on the Challenger Shuttle. You may find on Wikipedia a list of the many buildings, schools, and other memorials in his honor. Ronald McNair and his crewmates received the Congressional Space Medal of Honor and had craters named after them on the Moon. But what is also inspiring is the honors that Ron earned during his lifetime.

Ronald Erwin McNair was named a Presidential Scholar (1967-1971), a Ford Foundation Fellow (1971-1974), a National Fellowship Fund Fellow (1974-1975), a NATO Fellow (1975); winner of Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year Award (1975), honorary doctorate of Laws from North Carolina A&T State University (1978), Los Angeles Public School Systems Service Commendation (1979), Distinguished Alumni Award (1979), National Society of Black Professional Engineers Distinguished National Scientist Award (1979), Friend of Freedom Award (1981), honorary doctorate of Science from Morris College (1980), Who's Who Among Black Americans (1980), an AAU Karate Gold Medal (1976), five Regional Blackbelt Karate Championships, and numerous proclamations and achievement awards, and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of South Carolina (1984).

McNair Scholars program

The McNair Scholars Program was established in honor of Ronald McNair.

The McNair Scholars Program is a federal TRIO program funded at 151 institutions across the United States and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Department of Education. It is designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. McNair participants are either first-generation college students with financial need, or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education and have demonstrated strong academic potential. The goal of the McNair Scholars Program is to increase graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented segments of society.

- - quote from the McNair Scholar program website linked below:

McNair Scholars - U. S. Department of Education

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Last Modified 03/15/2023