The Life and Times of Dr. Ronald E. McNair

Ronald E. McNair
Dr Ronald E. McNair, NASA physicist and astronaut. He died in the Challenger tragedy in 1986. NASA

Dr. Ronald E. McNair was a decorated NASA astronaut who died on January 28, 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after launch from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It was the first shuttle tragedy, and also took the lives of the spacecraft commander, F.R. "Dick" Scobee, the pilot, Commander M.J. Smith (USN), mission specialists, Lieutenant Colonel E.S. Onizuka (USAF), and Dr. Judith.A.

Resnik, and two civilian payload specialists, Mr. G.B. Jarvis and Mrs. S. Christa McAuliffe, the teacher-in-space astronaut.

The Life and Times of Dr. McNair

Ronald E. McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. He was a 5th-degree black belt karate instructor and performing jazz saxophonist. He also enjoyed running, boxing, football, playing cards, and cooking.

McNair graduated from Carver High School, Lake City, South Carolina, in 1967; received BS in Physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971 and PhD. in Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976; received honorary doctorate of Laws from NC A&T State University in 1978, an honorary doctorate of Science from Morris College in 1980, and an honorary doctorate of science from the University of South Carolina in 1984.

A Scientist and Astronaut

While at MIT, Dr. McNair performed some of earliest development of chemical HF/DF and high-pressure CO (carbon monoxide) lasers.

His later experiments and theoretical analysis on the interaction of intense COlaser radiation with molecular gases provided new understandings and applications for highly excited polyatomic molecules.

In 1975, McNair studied laser physics with many authorities in the field at E’cole D’ete Theorique de Physique, Les Houches, France.

He published several papers in areas of lasers and molecular spectroscopy and gave many presentations in U.S. and abroad.

Following graduation from MIT, Dr. McNair became a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. His assignments included development of lasers for isotope separation and photochemistry utilizing non-linear interactions in low-temperature liquids and optical pumping techniques. He also conducted research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications, the construction of ultra-fast infrared detectors, ultraviolet atmospheric remote sensing, and scientific foundations of the martial arts.

Ronald McNair: Astronaut

McNair was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in January 1978. He completed the one-year training and evaluation period in August 1979 and qualified for assignment as a mission specialist astronaut on space shuttle flight crews.

His first flight as a mission specialist was on STS 41-B launched from Kennedy Space Center on February 3, 1984. He was part of a crew that included spacecraft commander, Mr. Vance Brand, the pilot, Cdr. Robert L. Gibson, and fellow mission specialists, Capt. Bruce McCandless II, and Lt.

Col. Robert L. Stewart. The flight accomplished proper shuttle deployment of two Hughes 376 communications satellites, and the flight testing of rendezvous sensors and computer programs. It also marked the first flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) and the first use of the Canadian arm (operated by McNair) to position EVA crewman around Challenger’s payload bay. Other projects for the flight were deployment of the German SPAS-01 Satellite, a set of acoustic levitation and chemical separation experiments, Cinema 360 motion picture filming, five Getaway Specials (small experimental packages), and numerous mid-deck experiments. Dr. McNair had primary responsibility for all of the payload projects. His flight on that Challenger mission culminated in first landing on the runway at Kennedy Space Center on February 11, 1984.

His last flight was aboard Challenger, and in addition to his duties as a msision specialist, he had also worked up a musical piece with composer Jean-Michel Jarre. McNair intended to perform a saxophone solo with the music while on orbit. The recording would have appeared on the album Rendez-Vous with McNair's performance. Instead, it was recorded in his memory by saxophonist Pierre Gossez, and is dedicated to McNair's memory.

Honors and Recognition

Dr. McNair was honored throughout his career, beginning in college. He graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T (‘71) and was named Presidential Scholar (‘67-’71). He was a Ford Foundation Fellow (‘71-’74) and a National Fellowship Fund Fellow (‘74-’75), NATO Fellow (‘75). He won the Omega Psi Phi Scholar of Year Award (‘75), Los Angeles Public School System’s Service Commendation (‘79), Distinguished Alumni Award (‘79), National Society of Black Professional Engineers Distinguished National Scientist Award (‘79), Friend of Freedom Award (‘81), Who’s Who Among Black Americans (‘80), an AAU Karate Gold Medal (‘76), and also worked up Regional Blackbelt Karate Championships.

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.