Ronald Erwin McNair
October 21, 1950
|January 28, 1986 (aged 35)
North Atlantic Ocean
|North Carolina A&T State University (BS)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MS, PhD)
|Congressional Space Medal of Honor
Time in space
|7d 23h 15m
|NASA Group 8 (1978)
|Energy Absorption and Vibrational Heating in Molecules Following Intense Laser Excitation (1977)
|Michael 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.
McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina, to Pearl M. and Carl C. McNair. He had two brothers, Carl and Eric A. McNair. 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. A children's book, Ron's Big Mission, offers a fictionalized account of this event. McNair's brother, Carl, 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, 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. At North Carolina A&T, he studied under professor Donald Edwards, who had established the physics curriculum at the university.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Main article: Space Shuttle 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 and the other six crew members were killed when Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean, 73 seconds after liftoff.
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.
Main article: 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 (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." McNair was supposed to have taken part in Jarre's Rendez-vous Houston concert through a live feed from the orbiting Shuttlecraft.
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:
McNair was married to Cheryl McNair, and they had two children. Cheryl is a founding director of the Challenger Center, which focuses on space science education.
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.