McNair, Ronald 1950–1986
Ronald McNair 1950–1986
Astronaut Ronald McNair’s life was one of challenges met and overcome. From his roots in a small South Carolina town, he worked and studied his way into the elite ranks of those who have traveled in space. He had further aspirations that he considered even more lofty than space travel: he planned to enter the teaching profession. Unfortunately, his dreams ended in the 1986 explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger. Mission specialist McNair and all of his crewmates perished in that tragic accident.
McNair had been fascinated by space even while growing up in Lake City, South Carolina. A precocious child who could read and write at the age of three, he was always ahead of his classmates in the town’s segregated school, where he earned the nickname “Gizmo” because of his mechanical wizardry. “I remember in elementary school when there was all the talk about [the former Soviet Union’s space satellite] Sputnik…. That’s all Ronald talked about—Sputnik, Sputnik, Sputnik. We got tired of hearing it,” McNair’s schoolmate Rachel Scott recalled in Ebony.
Ronald and his brother picked cotton and cropped tobacco to help their family’s finances, and their father taught them his trade, auto body repair, so they’d always have a marketable skill. But with his natural gifts and the strong encouragement of his mother, a high school teacher, McNair graduated as valedictorian from Carver High School and won a college scholarship from the state. In 1967 he entered North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, where one of his classmates was civilrights activist Jesse Jackson. When the time came to declare a major, McNair wondered if he’d be able to handle the university’s physics program. A counselor encouraged him to try, and McNair went on to be named a Ford Foundation fellow, a presidential scholar, a magna cum laude graduate of the physics program, and the recipient of a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
As he prepared to enter graduate school, McNair once again felt intimidated. “I had heard all kinds of rumors about MIT,” he was quoted as saying in Ebony. “They used to say that even the janitors at MIT had master’s degrees. At first I wasn’t going, but then I couldn’t run away from a challenge. I had to compete with the best.” He proved himself worthy of the distinguished school with his
Born Ronald Ervin McNair, October 21, 1950, in Lake City, SC; died January 28, 1986, in U.S. space shuttle Challenger explosion; son of Carl (an auto body repairman) and Pearl (a high school teacher) McNair; married Cheryl Moore; children: Reginald Ervin, Joy Cheray. Education: North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, B.A., 1971; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ph.D. (magna cum laude), 1976.
Hughes Research Laboratories, Malibu, CA, researcher, c.mid-1970s; scientist and astronaut for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 1978-86.
work on some of the earliest specialized lasers, including chemical and high-pressure lasers. During the course of his research, he collaborated with some of the top names in the field. Disaster struck after two years of work, though, when all of his data was lost just as his doctoral thesis was nearing completion. “Ronald never complained,” MIT advisor Michael Feld told Ebony correspondent D.M. Cheers. “He went back to work in the laboratory, and in a few months time the second set of data was complete, and it turned out better than the first data. This was typical of the way he worked to accomplish goals.” McNair turned in a solid thesis that was published in several technical journals. His next move was to accept a position at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California.
In 1977 the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mailed McNair an invitation to apply for its space program. Traditionally, astronauts had been selected from the ranks of test pilots, but the organization was now searching for a new breed of astronaut—scientists. This time, McNair was not intimidated. He was confident that if NASA was sincere about the qualifications it was looking for, he would be accepted. That confidence was justified; out of 10,000 applicants, he was one of 35 selected. Shortly before entering the program, McNair and his wife, Cheryl, sustained fairly severe injuries in an automobile accident. Physicians warned him that he might not be able to enter the NASA program on schedule, but he recovered as efficiently as he had done everything else in life and joined the space program as planned in 1978.
McNair’s first journey away from Earth took place in 1984, when he orbited the planet 122 times in the space shuttle Challenger. McNair—the second black astronaut to ever travel in space—joked about trying to see his tiny home town from the shuttle and also displayed his sense of humor while performing his most important duty of the mission—launching a $75 million communications satellite. His costume for the occasion included a beret, dark glasses, and a name tag that read “Cecil B. McNair.” His native Lake City subsequently honored him by renaming Main Street after him and putting an imprint of his boots in the city park. Even then, McNair was beginning to talk of returning to his home state to teach at the University of South Carolina.
Another trip in space was on NASA’s agenda, however. Shuttle launches had become routine by the mid-1980s, but the mission scheduled for January of 1986 was a high-profile event. The publicity stemmed from the fact that on this flight, Challenger would carry the first private citizen into space. That honor was originally intended for a journalist, but President Ronald Reagan decided that selecting a teacher instead would be a good rebuttal to those who criticized him as being unconcerned with education. Accordingly, New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe was chosen from 11,000 applicants to be the first educator in space.
McNair once again held the title of mission specialist and was slated to perform duties similar to those he’d been responsible for on his first flight. Launch day, January 28, 1986, dawned clear and unusually cold at Cape Canaveral, Florida, with patches of ice forming on and around the launch pad. Thanks to McAuliffe’s presence, millions of people were watching on television as the rocket bearing the shuttle began its ascent at 11:38 am and climbed nearly nine miles in 73 seconds. Crowds at the site were still cheering when the spacecraft suddenly exploded, disintegrating into a rain of fragments and a huge cloud of smoke. The sight of a parachute descending amid the wreckage gave horrified onlookers some brief, but false hope: it turned out to be only part of the rocket booster system, not the orbiter in which the astronauts had been sealed. NASA officials soon stated that the crew had probably not survived the explosion, but it was later found that they had. All were subsequently killed by the fall into the ocean.
Investigations into the Challenger tragedy revealed some disturbing facts about the U.S. space program. Several factors had contributed to the astronauts’ deaths, and all of them were preventable. The first was a 1972 decision allowing a manned spacecraft to be used without a launch escape system. An emergency flight abort and contingency landing system were available after the first two minutes in the air, but they could not be used while booster rockets were still firing. Thus any spacecraft experiencing trouble during the booster stage was essentially a death trap for the people within.
The explosion that destroyed Challenger was caused by a fuel leak, which in turn was caused by faulty components known as 0-rings. Both Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the 0-rings, and NASA had known for some time that the parts were faulty if exposed to cold. In order to keep the shuttle program on track, the problem had been covered up rather than solved. On the eve of the Challenger disaster, officials had debated the safety of launching in the extremely low temperatures. Their decision to proceed was ultimately motivated by political pressures related to McAuliffe’s involvement and the tremendous publicity it had generated.
Cheryl McNair filed the first lawsuit related to the explosion. It charged Morton Thiokol with negligence for knowingly using a defective design and failing to warn the astronauts of the problem and inform them of the debate over launching that took place the night before the doomed flight. Many family members of other astronauts followed Cheryl McNair’s lead and filed lawsuits later.
At his funeral, Ronald McNair was eulogized as a brilliant yet humble man, deeply religious and devoted above all to community service. He had been a frequent speaker for groups of school children and was once quoted by Time as declaring at one such appearance: “The true courage of space flight…is not sitting aboard 6 million [pounds] of fire and thunder as one rockets away from this planet. True courage comes in enduring…persevering,… the preparation and believing in oneself.”
Lewis, Richard S., Challenger: The Final Voyage, Columbia University Press, 1988.
Aviation Week & Space Technology, September 15, 1986.
Ebony, May 1986.
Essence, August 1986.
Jet, March 24, 1986; March 31, 1986; June 23, 1986.
Time, February 10, 1986.
U.S. News & World Report, February 10, 1986, February 17, 1986.
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