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About Dr. Ronald E. McNair

The late Dr. 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 as he was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger. He was a member of the crew when the Challenger exploded nine miles over the Atlantic shortly after takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 28, 1986.

McNair was born on October 21st, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina, and had to battle with racism and discrimination from a very early age. When he was nine he attempted to borrow books from his local public library, the Lake City Library, only to discover that ‘public’ meant that only whites could borrow books. This service was inaccessible to black people owing to the senseless Jim Crow laws of the time. Young McNair, however, politely insisted that he borrow the books. The police and his mother were called in to the library, but in the end he was allowed to leave with the books he desired.

This sense of tenacity combined with his affinities to science and technology propelled him through his brief but very impactful life.

He received his Bachelor of Science in Physics from North Carolina AT&T State University in 1971, and a PhD in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1976. He also received honorary doctorates from North Carolina AT&T State University, Morris College and the University of South Carolina.

While studying at MIT, and at the Ecole D’ete Theorique de Physique in France, Dr. McNair did critical research into the development of hydrogen fluoride/deuterium fluoride (HF/DF) and high-pressure CO lasers. He became a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, developing lasers for isotope separation and photochemistry among other areas of research and development.

McNair was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate when he was 28 years old. A year later, in 1979, he qualified as a mission specialist astronaut on Space Shuttle flights and flew his first mission, STS 41-B, on February 4th, 1984.

McNair was a music lover and an accomplished saxophonist. He worked with the French composer, Jean Michel Jarre on a piece of music for Jarre’s album Rendez-Vous. McNair, an adherent of the Baha’i Faith, was supposed to have been the first person to record a saxophone solo in space aboard the Challenger. He was also a martial arts enthusiast – the holder of a 5th degree Karate blackbelt and the winner of the AAU Karate Gold Medal (1976) and five regional Blackbelt championships.

McNair has been the recipient of numerous post-humous honors. MIT, his alma mater has a McNair Building which houses the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research; the US Department of Education offers the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program; the McNair crater on the moon is named after him; and the Lake City Library was dedicated in 2011 as the Ronald McNair Life History Centre.

Even though McNair's life was cut way too short, he exemplified excellence in everything that he touched. Coming from a low-income family did not stop him as he was determined to excel in academia and life. McNair was also a dedicated husband and the father of two children, Reginald Erwin and Joy Cheray.

The community honors the life and legacy of Dr. Ronald E. McNair and may we always remember his faithfulness and commitment to showing us the possibilities in STEM.

McNair was nominated by Jerome McQueen:

McNair was one of the first Black astronauts to go in space. Also being a Black South Carolinian he blazed the trail for a whole generation of Blacks (including me) to study science and engineering especially from the rural Black areas where education was not the priority. His name is on the library that once did not allow him to check out a book.

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