Ronald Erwin McNair (October 21, 1950 – January 28, 1986) was an American physicist and NASA astronaut. He died during the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51-L, where he was serving as the Mission Specialist. He is survived by his wife, Cheryl, and two children.
Born October 21, 1951, in Lake City, South Carolina, his parents were Pearl M. and Carl C. McNair. He had two brothers, Carl S. 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, which is now named after him. A children’s book, Ron’s Big Mission, offers a fictionalized account of this event.
McNair graduated as valedictorian of Carver High School in 1967.
In 1971, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Physics, magna cum laude, from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. McNair was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. In 1976, he received a Ph.D. 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.
In 1978, McNair was selected as one of thirty-five applicants from a pool of ten thousand for the NASA astronaut program. He flew on STS-41-B aboard Challenger from February 3 to February 11, 1984, as a mission specialist becoming the second African American and the first Bah’ to fly in space.
Following this mission, McNair was selected for STS-51-L, which launched on January 28, 1986, and was subsequently killed when Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean just 73 seconds after liftoff.
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 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 disaster and the deaths of its entire crew. The last of the Rendez-Vous pieces, (Last Rendez-Vous) had the additional name “Ron’s Piece”. Ron McNair was supposed to take part in the concert through a live feed.
McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004, along with all crew members lost in the Challenger and Columbia accidents.
A variety of public places, people and programs have been renamed in honor of McNair.
- The crater McNair on the Moon is named in his honor.
- The McNair Building at MIT, his alma mater, houses the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.
- Watson Chapel Jr. High was renamed the R. McNair Jr. High School in his honor.
- Ronald McNair Boulevard in Lake City, South Carolina, is named in his honor and lies near other streets named for astronauts who perished in the Challenger crash.
- The U.S. Department of Education offers the TRIO Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program for students with low income, first generation students, and/or underrepresented students in graduate education for doctorate education.
- On January 29, 2011, the Lake City, South Carolina, library was dedicated as the Ronald McNair Life History Center. When Ronald McNair was nine, the police and his mother were called because he wished to check out books from this library, which served only white patrons before he arrived. He said, “I’ll wait,” to the lady and sat on the counter until the police and his mother arrived, and the officer said, “Why don’t you just give him the books?” which the lady behind the counter reluctantly did. He said, “Thank you, Ma’am,” as he got the books. The episode as recalled by his brother Carl McNair has been depicted in a short animated film.
- Several K-12 schools have also been named after McNair.
- McNair Memorial Park in El Lago, Texas, is named in his honor.
- Ronald E. McNair Middle School in Lake City, South Carolina, was renamed from Carver High School in his honor (he was a high school graduate of the facility).
- Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, New Jersey
- Ronald McNair Elementary School currently under construction in Greensboro, North Carolina
- Ronald McNair Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland
- Ronald E. McNair Prince Hall Masonic Lodge No. 146 is named in his honor in Suitland, Maryland
- Dr. Ronald E. McNair High School in Atlanta, Georgia
- Ronald E. McNair Middle School, San Antonio, Texas – Southwest ISD
- Ronald McNair Middle School in Decatur, Georgia
- Ronald McNair Middle School in College Park, Georgia
- Ronald E. McNair Administrative Center in University City, Missouri
- Ronald E. McNair Elementary School in Hazelwood, Missouri
- Ronald Ervin McNair Elementary School in Denton, Texas (Denton ISD)
- Ronald McNair Middle School in Rockledge, Florida
- Ronald E. McNair Elementary School in Dallas, Texas (Dallas ISD)
- Ronald E. McNair Academic Center in Chicago, Illinois
- Ronald E. McNair Junior High School in Huntsville, Alabama
- Ronald McNair Middle School in East Palo Alto, California
- Ronald E. McNair High School in Stockton, California
- PS 5, Dr. Ronald McNair School in Brooklyn, New York
- PS/MS 147 Ronald McNair in Cambria Heights Queens, New York
- McNair Elementary School in Compton, California.
- Ronald E. McNair Building: KIPP Believe College Prep. New Orleans, Louisiana
- A building on the Willowridge High School campus in Houston, Texas, is named in honor of McNair.
- Dr. Ronald McNair Junior High School in Pearland, Texas (Alvin Independent School District), is named in honor Dr. McNair.
- There is a memorial in the Ronald McNair Park in Brooklyn, New York in his honor.
- The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Playground in East Harlem, New York City, is named after him.
- The Ronald E. McNair Space Theater inside the Davis Planetarium in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, is named in his honor.
- The Naval ROTC building on the campus of Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is named in his honor.
- The Engineering building at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC, is named in his honor.
- The McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, which operates at 179 campuses in the U.S. (April 7), awards research money and internships to first-generation and otherwise underrepresented students in preparation for graduate work.
- 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.
- Michigan State University Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Achievement Program/ Summer Research Opportunity Program is a nationally recognized undergraduate research program designed to encourage first-generation and low-income college juniors and seniors to enter doctoral study.