From: Charles R Spinner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: R McNair—Our Heroes Live On
Date: Sun, 23 Feb 2003 23:32:30 -0800
Ronald Erwin McNair
[Publisher’s note: This document is significant in that, other than his being honored by by the National Society of Black Professional Engineers (1979), there is no hint that McNair was in fact Black.]
Ronald Ervin McNair was born to Carl and Pearl McNair on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina, a quaint little town that was typical of most pre-Civil Rights-era rural towns. The house in which he was born had neither running water nor electricity. He had two brothers Eric and Carl Jr. The McNairs were a highly industrious couple who taught their sons by words, examples, and deeds. The three boys were never asked or expected to do more than they witnessed their parents doing to provide for the family. Carl McNair Sr. was an automobile body repairman. He taught his sons this trade despite never making as much as $100 a week during their childhood. Pearl McNair was a high school teacher. In order to earn a master’s degree in education from South Carolina State College, she made the 600-mile round trip to Orangeburg, South Carolina, during the years that her sons attended grade school. The McNair boys did farm work during summer months to supplement the family income.
Ronald McNair could read and write before entering school and was
considered a mechanical genius, which earned him the nickname of
Gizmo. The impetus for his early love of science was the Soviet
launch of Sputnik, the first space satellite. In the first grade he
was obsessed with Sputnik to the extent that he was observed looking
skyward on a regular basis. At Carver High School McNair was a
well-rounded student who excelled in athletics as well as in
academics. When his peers carried Afro combs as expressions of their
heritage, he carried a slide rule. In a posthumous tribute to him in
Ebony magazine for August 1986, a former classmate said,
knew that Ron was smarter than the rest of us. We all knew that he was
going to get that 100 on a test. However, his determination made the
rest of us eager to study hard to at least get a 99.
Despite crushing poverty and the overt discrimination in the south at
this time, Dr. McNair was still able to excel academically. He was
named the valedictorian of his high school class and was awarded a
state scholarship to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State
University (NC A&T) in Greensboro. He was a discouraged freshman
until a counselor urged him to seek a major in physics. Quoted in Time
magazine, the counselor said,
I think you’re good enough.
In 1971 McNair graduated from NC A&T magna cum laude and was named
a Ford Foundation Fellow and Presidential Scholar. He received a
scholarship to continue his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of
Despite his outstanding achievements, McNair reluctantly accepted the
MIT scholarship for graduate study. He overcame his initial hesitancy
and excelled academically just as he had done in high school and in
undergraduate college. In later years, as an experienced astronaut,
McNair would counsel young people to persevere, to be prepared, and to
believe in themselves. At MIT he had to heed that advice to overcome
an obstacle that might well have devastated a less confident
student. Near the end of his doctoral program, McNair lost all the
data for his doctoral thesis, an accumulation of two years specialized
laser physics research findings. This material was the result of
collaborations with top-flight laser physicists from MIT and the Ecole
d’ete Theorique de Physique at Les Houches, France. Despite this
setback, he started again and produced a second set of data in less
than a year. In an Ebony article for May 1986, his doctoral thesis
adviser, Michael Feld, said McNair never complained about the
misfortune and that
the second set turned out better than the first
set of data. This was typical of the way he worked to accomplish
In 1976 McNair completed all requirements for the Ph.D. degree in physics and joined the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California as a scientist. He was an acknowledged expert in the specialized fields of chemical and high-pressure lasers. His doctoral thesis was published in reputable technical journals and he wrote articles that were also accepted for publication.
Ron McNair won the AAU Karate Gold Medal (1976), five Regional
Blackbelt Karate Championships, and numerous proclamations and
Ron was a real expert with kata (forms), and an
excellent fighter, said Mack Gipson, one of McNair’s
He thrived on competition. I’ve hardly ever seen
anyone who performed kata with the detail and power he did.
Dr. McNair received an honorary doctorate of Laws from North Carolina A&T State University in 1978 McNair was named Distinguished National Scientist by the National Society of Black Professional Engineers (1979). He also received the Friend Of Freedom Award (1981). He was presented an honorary doctorate of Science from Morris College in 1980, and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of South Carolina in 1984. He was an accomplished saxophonist.
A t Huges, McNair came across an application from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for shuttle personnel and decided to submit it. Although previous candidates traditionally had been test pilots, NASA had begun to consider scientists and McNair was confident that he was qualified. Once accepted, however, disaster struck when he was seriously injured in a car accident and warned that his recovery might interfere with the NASA start-up schedule. Following his own creed of perseverance, preparation, endurance, and self-belief, he was able to enter the program on time.
In August of 1979 McNair completed the training and evaluation course
for shuttle mission specialists and began working at the Shuttle
Avionics Integration Laboratory. Four years later, according to
African-American Biographies, he was transferred to STS-11 and also
served as a capcom for flights 41-G and 51-A in 1984. That same year
his first space flight on Challenger orbited the earth 122 times and
launched a $75 million communications satellite, an operation that
required him to operate Challenger’s remote manipulator
arms. Displaying the humor for which he was well known, McNair joked
about trying to locate his tiny home town, while dressed in a beret,
sunshades, and carrying a movie clapboard name tag inscribed
B. McNair. He had a total of three flights in 1984, including his
service as a mission specialist aboard Mission 41-B, an eight-day
flight that required deploying two communications satellites. In an
Essence article, McNair described an incident he experienced during a
flight in February of 1984: I was awakened by music being piped up
from the Mission Control Center . . . [and] immediately recognized
. . . my college alma mater . . . [and] glanced at the N.C. A&T
banner proudly affixed to the wall and 400 years of history quickly
raced through my mind.
Although shuttle launches had become regular events, NASA and President Ronald Reagan envisioned a trip in space that would recapture the excitement and pride of the first space efforts and reestablish the United States as the premier world power in outer space. Not only would the 1986 Challenger carry the first private citizen into space, but that person would be a school teacher. Christa McAuliffe, a Concord, New Hampshire, high school teacher and mother of two, was selected from a pool of 11,000 applicants as the first educator to travel in space. This space flight was also notable due to the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of the seven crew members.
On January 28, 1986, television sets the world over tuned to major network coverage of the Cape Canaveral, Florida, flight that began its climb into space at 11:38 a.m. A little over a minute later, millions of viewers, in addition to the site witnesses comprised of crew members’ families, friends, and coworkers, watched in horror as Challenger exploded. As they watched, mesmerized by the awful beauty of the spectacle, white plumes of smoke slowly spiraled earthward and the finality of the doomed flight became apparent. All seven members of the crew died.
It has been said that political pressure was the impetus in deciding to grant clearance to launch the flight in questionable weather. NASA and the manufacturer of the O-rings knew that exposure to cold temperatures could cause fuel leakage, yet NASA was influenced by the publicity over the McAuliffe selection as a civilian crew member. Fourteen years prior to this fatal flight, the U.S. Space Program first allowed a manned spacecraft to be used without a launch escape system. These two factors were both preventable, yet it is claimed that both contributed to the deaths of the Challenger crew.
Surviving McNair was his wife, Cheryl (Moore) McNair, a son Reginal and daughter Joy Cheray. Cheryl McNair, Ronald’s widow, was the first survivor to file a lawsuit against Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the defective O-rings. She accused the company of deliberately failing to warn the astronauts about the defects. She reportedly received a settlement in excess of $1 million. Along with other surviving family members of Challenger victims, she founded the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in memory of the entire mission crew. As the founding director, she continues to oversee programs designed to inspire and educate students and teachers in science and mathematics through space education.