Ronald Ervin McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. His father, Carl, was a mechanic and his mother, Pearl, was a teacher. As a child, McNair earned the nickname “Gizmo” because he had an innate ability to understand technology and technical matters quite well.
McNair soon developed an interest in space exploration after the Russian satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957. His interest was further piqued by the television series, Star Trek. The television show’s multi-ethnic cast challenged the stigmas surrounding what a Black person could and could not do. Star Trek encouraged McNair to reach for the stars.
While attending Carver High School, McNair was a star basketball and football athlete, a saxophone player in the school band, and he graduated valedictorian of his 1967 class. He earned a scholarship to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
Although he considered majoring in music, McNair decided to pursue his first love, science. He eventually graduated magna cum laude in 1971, having earned his Bachelor’s degree in physics. He then earned a Ford Foundation fellowship through which he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Although two year’s worth of his specialized laser physics research was stolen, he was able to produce a second set of data in just one year. With his research, he earned his Ph.D. in physics, in 1976.
By the end of his doctorate program, McNair was a respected expert in the fields of chemical and high-pressure lasers. He soon began working for the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. There, he developed lasers for isotope separation and researched electro-optic modulation that would enable satellite space communication.
McNair learned that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) wanted scientists to join the shuttle program. McNair was one of 35 applicants selected to join. Shortly after Guion S. Bluford became the first Black person in space, McNair boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger for mission STS-41B.
During McCandless’ historic untethered spacewalk, McNair controlled the robotic arm that assisted McCandless. McNair spent 191 hours in space and orbited the Earth 122 times before returning to the Kennedy Space Center.
In 1985, McNair was selected to return to the Space Shuttle Challenger for another mission, STS-51L. This mission garnered media attention because NASA invited school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, on board as a civilian payload. McNair was assigned the task of controlling a robotic arm in order to reposition a satellite that would capture images of Halley’s Comet.
The launch was met with delays until they were finally cleared for launch. Seventy-three seconds after the Space Shuttle Challenger launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the shuttle exploded. On live television, all seven crew members were killed. Ronald McNair died on January 28, 1986. He was just 35 years old.
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