Ronald McNairMay 31st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Military & Exploration
1950-1986 Ronald McNair was a physicist specializing in advanced laser technology, and an astronaut who flew on the fourth Space Shuttle mission in 1984. During his second flight two years later, he was one of seven astronauts tragically killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated.
A Passion for Science
McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. His father was an auto body repairman and his mother a high school teacher. Instilling in McNair and his two brothers the belief that education would be their path to success, they were richly rewarded when year after year, McNair excelled at his studies.
The other element of the family’s formula for success was hard work, and each summer, McNair would work on a farm to provide the family with extra income. The boy was captivated when in 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. From then on, enthralled with space, McNair closely followed the Soviet and American space programs. Meanwhile, exceptionally skilled in science and math, he was named valedictorian of his 1967 high school class, and won a scholarship to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.
At Greensboro, McNair developed a passion for physics and won his first measure of national recognition as a Ford Foundation Fellow and Presidential Scholar. He received a B.A. in physics with high honors in 1971, and was awarded a scholarship for graduate study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, he honed in on a specialty within physics, the development of advanced chemical lasers. In 1975, he was named MIT’s Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year, and had the opportunity to conduct research with the best laser scientists and engineers in the world at Les Houches Centre for Physics in the French Alps.
McNair suffered a near calamity while working toward his MIT doctorate when two years’ worth of research results were lost. Some students would have given up in despair, but McNair picked up the pieces and simply performed his experiments again, with improved results. McNair’s graduate advisor later remarked that such resiliency was typical of McNair. He succeeded in earning a Ph.D. from MIT in 1976, and accepted a position as physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories in California. That same year, McNair married Cheryl Moore, with whom he would have two children. At Hughes, McNair performed cutting-edge research on the use of lasers for space communication and the use of high-powered lasers for the separation of isotopes. He also did research into the physics behind martial arts, a subject of intense interest to him. While carrying a full academic schedule at MIT, he had earned a black-belt in karate and won several regional championships.
Physicist in Space
In 1978, McNair was suddenly presented with an opportunity to unite two passions—physics and space exploration—when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recruited a group of new astronauts for the Space Shuttle program. McNair almost failed to make the cut because of serious injuries he had suffered in a car accident, but NASA needed scientists like him to complement the jet pilots of the first generation of astronauts. In January 1978, McNair joined the astronaut training program in Houston, and one year later was qualified as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle, then still under development.
The first shuttle flew in 1981, but McNair would not go into space until 1984. During this period, NASA used McNair’s engineering talents at its advanced avionics research laboratory. Finally, on February 3, 1984, McNair earned his space wings. He was a member of a crew of five on the Space Shuttle Challenger during a three-and-a-half-day mission. His role was to become the first astronaut to operate a high-tech boom used to release satellites, and to perform experiments on the chemical separation of substances in the microgravity of space. The mission earned the crew a place in history when it conducted the first untethered space walk by an astronaut.
During the Challenger’s 122 orbits on the 1984 mission, McNair realized his boyhood dream of space flight. He became one of the few human beings privileged to view Earth from almost 200 miles away, and to see the stars through the crystal-clear vacuum of space. He was energized and eagerly looked forward to his next mission, another flight on the Challenger scheduled two years into the future, the ill-fated mission dubbed STS 51-L.
McNair was one of seven astronauts aboard Challenger when it was launched just before noon on January 26, 1986. More than the usual number of children were watching on television because of the presence of the first school teacher astronaut, Christie McAuliffe, who was scheduled to conduct science activities from space with school children across the United States. For his part, McNair, an avid jazz musician, had taken along his instrument and planned to be the first person to play the saxophone in space.
The Challenger launch was given the go-ahead despite warnings from engineers that critical Space Shuttle components had not been tested at the low temperatures present that morning. These concerns proved justified: slightly more than a minute into the mission, a gasket in one of the Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters—the infamous O-ring—made brittle by the cold, failed. Rocket gases escaped and burned through the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank, causing disintegration of the spacecraft. None of the astronauts survived.
McNair, then just 36 years old, left behind his wife, his two young children, and a life filled with promise. During the short time he lived, his accomplishments earning him honorary degrees from North Carolina A&T State University, Morris College, and the University of South Carolina. After his death, Cheryl McNair and survivors of other mission members founded the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. In 1989, the Department of Education initiated the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program to support disadvantaged students, and in 2004, Congress awarded McNair the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.