Black History 365: 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 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, he 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, he was allowed to borrow books from the library; the building that housed the library at the time is now named after him.[1] A children’s book, Ron’s Big Mission, offers a fictionalized account of this event. His 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.[2]

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.[3] At North Carolina A&T, he studied under professor Donald Edwards, who had established the physics curriculum at the university.[4]

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.[5]

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[3] and a member of the Bahá’í Faith.[6][7]

Astronaut career

In 1978, McNair was selected as one of thirty-five applicants from a pool of ten thousand 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.[8] He 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.

Astronaut candidates Ron McNair, Guy Bluford, and Fred Gregory wearing Apollo spacesuits, May 1978

Challenger disaster

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 was killed when Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds after liftoff. The disintegration also killed six other crew members.[9]

He 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.[10]

Music in space

Main article: Music in space

McNair was an accomplished saxophonist.

Before his last fateful space mission, he had worked with the composer Jean-Michel Jarre on a piece of music for Jarre’s then-upcoming album Rendez-Vous. It was intended that he would record his saxophone solo onboard the Challenger, which would have made McNair’s solo the first original piece of music to have been recorded in space[11] (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.”[12] Ron McNair was supposed to have taken part in Jarre’s Rendez-vous Houston concert through a live feed from the orbiting Shuttlecraft.

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.

Dr. Ronald E. McNair memorial in his hometown, Lake City, South Carolina

Dr. Ronald E. McNair tomb in his hometown, Lake City, South Carolina

Ronald McNair Park in Brooklyn, New York City

Ronald E. McNair South Central Police Station of the Houston Police Department in Houston, Texas

A variety of public places, people and programs have been renamed in honor of McNair.

Ronald E. McNair Hall, On the campus of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina 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.[27] McNair was portrayed by Joe Morton in the 1990 TV movie Challenger. 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. 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. The federally-funded McNair Scholars/Achievement Programs award research money and internships to juniors and seniors who are first-generation and low-income, or members of groups that are underrepresented, in preparation for graduate study. 187 institutions participate (as of 2020).[28][29] Michigan State University, Washington State University, and Syracuse University are three examples of these programs and both offer Summer Research Opportunity Program as additional program components.[30]