Ronald Erwin McNair
birth: October 21, 1950; died: January 28, 1986
birthplace: Lake City, South Carolina
died: one of the seven crew members killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion on January 28, 1986.
B.S. Physics (1971) North Carolina A&T State College
Ph.D. Physics (1976) Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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, "We all 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 Technology (MIT).
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 goals."
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 achievement awards. "Ron was a real expert with kata (forms), and an excellent fighter," said Mack Gipson, one of McNair's instructors. "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 "Cecil 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.
references: [http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/mcnair.html], [http://www.unh.edu/mcnair/blackbelt.html], [Hawkins, Walter L. African-American Biographies: Profiles of 558 Current Men and Women. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1992], [Cheers, D. Michael. "Requiem for a Hero `Touching the Face of God.'" Ebony 41 (May 1986): 82--94], [Haywood, Richette. "Ebony Update." Ebony 51 (May 1996): 94].
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