Ronald E. McNair

1950-1986 

     Ronald E. McNair was the second of three mission specialists aboard the space shuttle 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.

     The Challenger shuttle crew, of seven astronauts--including the specialties of pilot, aerospace engineers, and scientists-- died tragically in the explosion of their spacecraft during the launch of STS-51-L from the Kennedy Space Center about 11:40 a.m., EST, on January 28, 1986. The explosion occurred 73 seconds into the flight as a result of a leak in one of two Solid Rocket Boosters that ignited the main liquid fuel tank. The crewmembers of the Challenger represented a cross-section of the American population in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and religion. The explosion became one of the most significant events of the 1980s, as billions around the world saw the accident on television and empathized with any one of the several crewmembers killed.

Text taken from  The Crew of the Challenger Shuttle Mission in 1986, NASA.
Image courtesy of NASA.
For further information contact, Dr. Roger D. Launius, NASA Chief Historian, Code Z, NASA Headquarters, Washington,DC, rlaunius@codei.hq.nasa.gov.