Friday, February 19, 2021

Dr. Ronald McNair: Challenger Astronaut

Most everyone my age remembers where they were on January 28, 1986, watching a national tragedy unfold on live television.  A space shuttle disaster that would claim the lives of seven astronauts, including the subject of today's blog.  But more on the tragedy later.

Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair was born in Lake City, South Carolina on October 21, 1950.  Academics came easily to McNair, as he was always fascinated with science and technology.  He would graduate valedictorian of his high school in 1967, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Physics at MIT.

In the late 1970s, McNair applied for the NASA astronaut program and was eventually selected from a pool of over 10,000 applicants.  His first venture into space began on February 3, 1984, aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

By this time, the space shuttle program had earned the public's confidence, and McNair's first venture into space was as successful as all its predecessors.  He was offered additional missions with the space shuttle program, which he enthusiastically accepted.

By 1986, McNair was assigned another mission on board Challenger, one that gained international attention for its inclusion of the first civilian in space, New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe.  It would be Challenger's tenth and final trip into space, bearing the designation STS-51-L.

On January 28th, Challenger took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:37 a.m. EST.  As everyone watching that day remembers, it exploded just one minute after take-off.  You can watch that footage here.

An investigation into the disaster took several years to complete, but the cause was eventually attributed to a faulty O-ring on the right solid rocket booster, which led to the complete disintegration of the shuttle and its crew.

The crew's remains, including McNair's, were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean and were properly identified.  While a memorial to the crew was placed at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, most of their remains were returned to the families for private burial.

McNair was originally laid to rest at Rest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Lake City.  In 2004, he was re-interred at the new Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park.


  • When he was eight years old, McNair attempted to check out a series of books from the Lake City Public Library, which was segregated at the time.  He was initially refused service, but after police were called to the scene, he was allowed to take the books home after all.  Today, the library has been renamed in his honor.

  • McNair's brother Carl wrote the official biography entitled In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair - Astronaut: An American Hero.  Author Rose Blue also published a children's book chronicling McNair's library episode referenced above, entitled Ron's Big Mission.  Both are available from Amazon.

  • McNair played the saxophone and had planned to record a piece on board Challenger for composer Jean-Michel Jarre.  Following the disaster, Jarre released his album "Rendez-vous" with a track dedicated to McNair, entitled "Last Rendez-Vous: Ron's Piece."  You can listen to it here.

  • McNair was the second African-American to venture into space, behind Colonel Guion S. Bluford, who was a member of Challenger's crew in 1983.

  • McNair studied taekwondo, achieving a sixth-degree black belt.

  • You can visit the park's official web site for a virtual tour and more information.

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