The second African American in space, McNair made his first flight in February 1984 aboard the space shuttle Challenger.
Astronaut. McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, the second of three sons born to Carl McNair, an auto mechanic, and his wife, Pearl Montgomery. Reared in a rural, segregated southern community, McNair developed an interest in science and space travel at the age of seven when the first Sputnik satellite went into orbit. At age nine he challenged his segregated world when he tried to check out books from the Lake City Library and won the privilege of borrowing books.
McNair graduated from Carver High School in 1967 as class valedictorian, having become a serious student fascinated by science at a time when NASA’s Apollo missions began to carry human passengers on 500,000-mile flights to the moon and back. He enrolled at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, initially as a music major. But when his aptitude for science was recognized, he was persuaded to concentrate on physics. He graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T with a B.S. in physics in 1971. A Ford Foundation scholarship permitted McNair to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he received his doctorate in physics in 1976. On June 27, 1976, McNair married Cheryl Moore from Jamaica, New York. They had two children.
While at MIT, McNair specialized in quantum electronics and molecular spectroscopy, conducting significant work in the development of laser technology. In 1975 he studied laser physics at the École D’ete Theorique de Physique at Les Houches, France. The following year McNair became a staff physicist at Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu, California, where he continued his laser research. His work attracted the attention of NASA, and in 1978 McNair was selected as an astronaut candidate. He moved with his family to Houston, Texas. After evaluation and training, McNair qualified as a mission specialist astronaut.
The second African American in space, McNair made his first flight in February 1984 aboard the space shuttle Challenger. His assignments included operating a remote sensory camera and a new fifty-foot remote manipulator arm designed to remove damaged satellites in space. He monitored space gases, tested solar cells, and was the first person to play a saxophone in orbit.
McNair was slated to undertake his second shuttle mission in January 1986. His scientific duties were to have included deployment of a telescopic camera to study Haley’s Comet. Tragically, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after its launch at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on January 28, 1986, killing McNair and his six fellow crew members. McNair was buried in Rest Lawn Cemetery in Lake City.
Kessler, James H., et al., eds. Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century. Phoenix: Oryx, 1996.
McGuire, Stephen. “Ronald E. McNair.” Physics Today 39 (April 1986): 72–73.