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

Each year, NASA and members of the space community remember the astronauts lost when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after launch from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida on January 28, 1986.  Dr. Ronald E. McNair was a member of that crew. He was a decorated NASA astronaut, scientist, and talented musician. He perished along with 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 loved sports, and as an adult, he became a 5th-degree black belt karate instructor. His musical tastes tended toward jazz, and he was an accomplished saxophonist. He also enjoyed running, boxing, football, playing cards, and cooking.

As a child, McNair was known to be a voracious reader. This led to an often-told story that he went to the local library (which served only white citizens at the time) to check out books. The tale, as recalled by his brother Carl, ended with a young Ronald McNair being told he couldn't check any books out and the librarian called his mother to come get him. Ron told them he'd wait. The police arrived, and the officer simply asked the librarian, "Why don't you just give him the books"?  She did.  Years later, the same library was named in Ronald McNair's memory in Lake City. 

McNair graduated from Carver High School in 1967; received his BS in Physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971 and earned a Ph.D. in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He received an honorary doctorate of Laws from North Caroline 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.

McNair: the Astronaut-Scientist

While at MIT, Dr. McNair made some major contributions in physics. For example, he performed some of earliest development of chemical hydrogen-fluoride and high-pressure carbon monoxide lasers. His later experiments and theoretical analysis on the interaction of intense CO2 (carbon dioxide) laser radiation with molecular gases provided new understandings and applications for highly excited polyatomic molecules.

In 1975, McNair spent time researching laser physics 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 his graduation from MIT, Dr. McNair became a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. His assignments included the 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.

Ronald McNair: Astronaut

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

His first experience as a mission specialist was on STS 41-B, aboard Challenger. It was 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 the 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 also aboard Challenger, and he never made it to space. In addition to his duties as a mission specialist for the ill-fated mission, McNair had worked up a musical piece with French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. McNair intended to perform a saxophone solo with Jarre 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.

Ronald McNair has a number of schools and other buildings named for him, plus memorials, and other facilities. The music he was supposed to play onboard Challenger does appear on Jarre's eight album, and is called "Ron's Piece." 

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Greene, Nick. "The Life and Times of Dr. Ronald E. McNair." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Greene, Nick. (2021, February 16). The Life and Times of Dr. Ronald E. McNair. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "The Life and Times of Dr. Ronald E. McNair." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).