Image of Astronaut Ronald McNair
NASA Image
Ronald E. McNair

Birthplace: Lake City, South Carolina, October 21, 1950

Challenger Position: Mission Specialist

Education: Graduated from Carver High School, Lake City, South Carolina, in 1967; received a bachelor of science degree in Physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971 and a doctor of philosophy in Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976; presented an honorary doctorate of Laws from North Carolina 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

Ronald McNair was one of three mission specialists on Challenger mission STS 51-L. He was born on October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina. He was a 5th degree black belt Karate instructor and a performing jazz saxophonist. He also enjoyed running, boxing, football, playing cards, and cooking. In the summer of 1959, he refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library without being allowed to check out his books. After the police and his mother were called, he was allowed to borrow books from the Library, which is now named after him. He graduated from Carver High School in 1967 as valedictorian of his class. He attended North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina where he graduated magna cum laude in 1971. He received a Ph. D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. During this time, he was nationally recognized for his work in the field of laser physics. He also published several papers in the areas of lasers and molecular spectroscopy. After graduating from MIT, he became a staff physicist at the Hughes Research Lab in Malibu, California. His worked on 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, and ultraviolet atmospheric remote sensing.

McNair was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1978. He completed a one-year training and evaluation period in 1979, which qualified him for assignment as a mission specialist in the Space Shuttle program. His first space mission was aboard shuttle mission STS 41-B in 1984. The mission included the deployment of two satellites and a number of scientific experiments. It also marked the first use of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) and the first use of the Canadian robot arm, which was operated by McNair.

McNair was selected as a mission specialist for Challenger mission STS 51-L. This was to be his second space flight. After the accident, he was laid to rest in Lake City, South Carolina and was survived by his wife and two children. A crater on the Moon and several schools around the country were named after him. Ronald McNair Boulevard in Lake City, South Carolina is named in his honor and lies near other streets named for astronauts who perished in the Challenger crash. The Lake City Public Library building was restored and renamed as the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. The U.S. Department of Education offers the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program for students with low income, first generation students, and/or underrepresented students in graduate education for doctorate education.