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Challenger Biographies: Ronald McNair

By Marty McDowell/NASA

Ronald E. McNair was the second of three mission specialists aboard Challenger. Born on October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, McNair was the son of Carl C. McNair, Sr., and Pearl M. McNair. He achieved early success in the segregated public schools he attended as both a student and an athlete. Valedictorian of his high school class, he attended North Carolina A&T State University where in 1971 he received a B.S. degree in physics. He went on to study physics at MIT, where he specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology, completing his Ph.D. in 1977. As a student he performed some of the earliest work on chemical HF/DF and high pressure CO lasers, publishing pathbreaking scientific papers on the subject.

McNair was also a physical fitness advocate and pursued athletic training from an early age. He was a leader in track and football at his high school. He also became a black belt in Karate, and while in graduate school began offering classes at St. Paul's AME Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also participated in several Karate tournaments, taking more than 30 trophies in these competitions. While involved in these activities McNair met and married Cheryl B. Moore of Brooklyn, New York, and they later had two children. After completing his Ph.D. he began working as a physicist at the Optical Physics Department of Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, and conducted research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications.

This research led McNair into close contact with the space program for the first time, and when the opportunity presented itself he applied for astronaut training. In January 1978 NASA selected him to enter the astronaut cadre, one of the first three Black Americans selected. McNair became the second Black American in space between February 3 and 11, 1984, by flying on the Challenger Shuttle mission STS-41-B. During this mission McNair operated the maneuverable arm built by Canada used to move payloads in space. The 1986 mission on which he was killed was his second Shuttle flight.

Source: NASA.


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"As I scroll through the various sites about the late Dr. Ronald E. McNair on line, I begin to picture that day as if it were yesterday. It was a great day for all natives of Lake City, SC because one of our own had achieved greatness as an African American Astronaut. A rising 10th grader at Lake City High School, I had just arrived to my Economics class. All focus on that day was definitely to witness Dr. Ronald McNair, and the rest of the Challenger's crew exit Earth on their journey into space. As we all watched the countdown in excitement, a few seconds later, that excitement would turn into disbelief because we had witnessed a terrible tragedy which would affect America's history forever."


"Our son dreamed of becoming an astronaut, in fact that was all he thought about for years. He kept up with every launch of the space shuttle and wrote to NASA and asked for autographed photos of the crew members, when their names were announced. Our local paper even done a news story about a local boy's dreams of becoming an astronaut, and ran a picture of Tim and some of his autographed photos.

A few years later we lost our son, but we have held onto those pictures for all of these years. Two weeks ago we decided to remove the pictures from their frames and put them in an album. We couldn't help but read each and every word the astronauts had written. When we came to Ron McNair our hearts nearly stopped, his message said, "To Tim.....Hope to see you in space someday."

Thanks Ron, I hope you and Tim have finally met."

--Lynn Webb

"When the Challenger disaster occured, I was only six years old and too young to remember the events of that tragic day. But I can bear witness to the fact that the quest to reach spectacular heights indeed lives on. I am a college student and a participant in the McNair Scholars program which provides mentoring and support in obtaining a Ph. D. for graduate and undergraduate students from traditionally underreprensented groups in academia. Without this program that was created in Dr. McNair's honor, I would not be on the path to graduating with two B. A. 's and preparing for graduate studies. So to everyone that respects, honors and remembers Dr. McNair, rest assured that his spirit of excellence and achievemnt still lives on im myself and other McNair Scholars. "


Space References (Books):
Dickinson, Terence. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. Firefly Books, 1998.
Greene, Brian. Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Vintage, 2000.
Hawking, Stephen. Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition. Bantam, 1996.
Hawking, Stephen. Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New Millenium, 2002.
Hawking, Stephen. The Universe in a Nutshell. Bantam, 2001.
Kaku, Michio. Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps and the Tenth Dimension.
Kranz, Gene. Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Berkley Pub Group, 2001.
Sagan, Carl; Druyan, Ann. Comet, Revised Edition. Ballantine, 1997
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos, Reissue Edition. Ballantine, 1993
Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine, 1997

Space References (Videos):
Cosmos. PBS, 2000.
Stephen Hawking's Universe. PBS, 1997.
Hyperspace. BBC, 2002.
Life Beyond Earth PBS, 1999.
The Planets
. BBC, 1999.
Understanding The Universe. A&E, 1996.


Ronald E. McNair

Courtesy of NASA

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