NASA selected McNair for his scientific prowess. After years of just sending pilots up into space, the organisation changed its policy and began seeking scientists as well. Nonetheless, these scientists had to pass the same rigorous physical tests and training as the pilots. Dr. McNair first worked at the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, where he conducted research and helped develop new technology. In NASA jargon, McNair became a mission specialist astronaut. Mission specialists conducted experiments in space and helped to maintain equipment up there. This potentially involved leaving the shuttle in a space suit to carry out essential repairs.
15. In 1984, he became only the second African-American in space
In February 1984, Ronald made his maiden voyage as an astronaut aboard the Challenger shuttle on mission STS-41 B. The mission deployed two communication satellites and tested numerous pieces of equipment and technology. Ronald had primary responsibility for various experiments on the 191-hour flight which orbited the earth 122 times. He also operated the robotic arm that allowed Bruce McCandless perform the first untethered space walk. Ronald became the second African-American to orbit the earth after Guion Stewart Bluford, another member of the class of 1978. Bluford beat Ronald to the title by just 5 months.
14. McNair is the first person to play saxophone in space
He may not have been the first African-American in space, but Ronald achieved two other firsts all the same. Firstly, he became the first member of the BahÃ¡’Ã Faith to go into space. Secondly, he also became the first person to play a saxophone in space. McNair was a noted saxophonist, and he took his favourite instrument with him on the Challenger in February 1984. Floating on his back in zero gravity conditions, Ronald played an original composition on the instrument. Ronald gave the reed he used to his old music teacher who gave him his first saxophone.
13. He even had plans to play saxophone at a Jean-Michel Jarre Concert… live from space!
Ronald’s musical talent and many accomplishments drew the attention of the French electronic music composer Jean-Michel Jarre. The two became friends, and Ronald agreed to play saxophone on Jarre’s upcoming album. The solo would be recorded in space. Amazingly, the pair also had plans for Ronald to play a live solo at a Jarre concert live from orbit via video-link! Sadly, Ronald’s fatal second mission aboard the Challenger was to be the time for both collaborations. On the album set to have a McNair sax-solo, 1986’s Rendez-Vous, Jarre dedicated âDernier Rendez-Vous’ to the astronaut’s memory. Jarre subtitled it âRon’s Piece’.
12. McNair was selected again for the STS-51L mission of the Challenger in 1985
After the success of mission STS 41-B, NASA selected Ronald for STS 51-L. With 6 other astronauts, the Challenger was scheduled for take-off in January 1986. STS 51-L, the 25th US space shuttle mission, aimed to launch more satellites and monitor Halley’s Comet. Alongside his Jean-Michel Jarre collaboration, Ronald again had responsibility for experiments on board. The mission was Challenger‘s tenth, and Ronald was hugely excited about another foray into orbit. Bad weather and problems with the exterior access hatch delayed the planned January, 22, 1986 launch. Eventually, Ronald and his fellow astronauts prepared for launch on January, 28…
11. The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after take-off, killing McNair and 6 other astronauts
The mission marked the darkest day in NASA’s history. At 11:38am EST, Challenger was cleared for launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Everything seemed fine initially, and on the video of the launch you can hear crowds cheering. However, after the planned break-up, the shuttle ran into difficulties. After 73 seconds, the Challenger exploded at 46, 000 feet in the air, to the horror of people watching all around the world. NASA employees and spectators alike could only look on in horror. All 7 astronauts on board died, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. Ronald was just 35 years old.
10. Structural failure caused the Challenger to explode
Subsequent investigations into the Challenger disaster found structural failure caused it. The severe cold of the morning of January, 28 1986 reduced the resiliency of rubber rings sealing the joint between the lower segments of the right-hand rocket booster. Instead of resealing as usual, the rings allowed hot exhaust gas to escape, which ignited 59 seconds after launch. The effects of the failure also made the external fuel tank to explode. Tragically, Morton-Thiokol, the company which made the rings, had warned NASA about the potentially catastrophic effects of cold weather. Challenger took off from a launch tower covered in icicles.
9. The Challenger and its crew were found in the ocean months later
No one who saw the Challenger explode had any doubts as to the fate of the 7 astronauts on board. Debris from the explosion continued to fall in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour afterwards. Despite the prompt reaction of search and rescue teams, they couldn’t find any trace of the crew. A huge search began, covering 486 square nautical miles. On March, 7, divers from the USS Preserver found the crew compartment on the ocean floor. After so long in the Atlantic, the astronauts’ bodies were a gruesome sight, and autopsies thus proved inconclusive.
8. His wife, Cheryl Moore, and two children survived him
At heart, and despite his staggering achievements, Ronald McNair was a devoted family man. His death widowed his distraught wife, Cheryl B. Moore. His children, Joy Charey and Reginald Ervin, were aged just 18 months and 3 years respectively at the time. Since the tragedy, Cheryl and the children have dedicated themselves to honouring Ronald’s memory by encouraging children to study science. Alongside the other astronauts’ family members, Cheryl founded the Challenger Centre for Space Science Education in 1986. The Challenger Centre still exists today, and has grown into a huge non-for-profit educational organisation.
More than 1000 people attended a memorial for Ronald in Lake City, days after the Challenger tragedy. On May, 18, 1986, the McNair family buried Ronald at the church in Lake City he attended as a child. After his long journey, Lake City’s greatest hero came home for good. 300 people attended the funeral, and the procession reached half a mile in length. His tomb reads, âI urge you to go forth with the knowledge that you are better than good enough’. This is an inspirational quote from Ronald’s 1984 commencement address to the University of South Carolina.
6. The Challenger disaster prompted tighter safety regulations for subsequent missions
NASA immediately suspended all shuttle missions in the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy. President Ronald Reagan immediately launched the Rogers Commission to determine the cause of the explosion that took 7 lives. The report heavily criticised NASA and Morton-Thiokol, the company responsible for the rubber rings that failed. In response, NASA fundamentally changed its modus operandi, and improved safety for astronauts. It no longer accepted private contracts for launching satellites, and agreed to launch far fewer missions. This ensured technicians and shuttles were not overtaxed, thus protecting the astronauts. Astronaut safety has been far better ever since the Rogers Commission.
5. McNair’s story inspired African-Americans to aim high
In his lifetime, Ronald always had time for others, and through his local church worked directly to inspire children. His public speeches always spoke of equality, tolerance and determination. But as is often the case, his influence and example have only increased posthumously. Ronald is a fixture of Black History Month with good reason. Ronald rose from poverty in a small South Carolina town under Jim Crow laws to earn a PhD from MIT and orbit the earth. It’s no surprise that countless African-Americans in all walks of life have found inspiration in Ronald’s story.
4. Neil deGrasse Tyson cites McNair as an inspiration
One particularly prominent admirer of Ronald is the astrophysicist and public scientist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Though only 8 years Ronald’s junior, Tyson didn’t get his PhD until the age of 33, and drew inspiration from the astronaut. In particular, Ronald’s dual interest in athletics and academia appealed to keen amateur wrestler Tyson. âAn astronaut who was also a black belt in karate [showed] an athletic hobby need not interfere with academic pursuits’, he once said. Tyson has also used his platform to increase awareness and interest in science across all demographics, just like Ronald.
3. The US Department of Education offers a scholarship named after McNair
Beyond his influence as an inspirational figure, Ronald’s name is attached to more literal educational schemes befitting of his memory. Most famous is the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program offered by the US Department of Education. This scholarship aims to encourage and enable students from underrepresented and disadvantaged demographics to pursue doctoral work. In 1996, the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Educational Science Literacy Foundation (DREME) was launched. The DREME Foundation aims to assist teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It also offers schools for children of all ages and several scholarships. Such aims were close to Ronald’s heart.
2. Numerous High Schools and even a crater on the moon are named after McNair
There are far too many things named after Ronald to list, so we’ll mention just a few notable examples. There are many schools named in his honour, buildings at universities including MIT and North Carolina AT&T, and public parks. Lake City has a memorial park and boulevard named after Ronald, and renamed his old high school, Carver, after him. A crater on the moon is simply named McNair, and several planetariums bear his famous name. All are fitting tributes to a true American hero, but there’s one other place named after Ronald that deserves its own section…
1. Remember that racist library? Well, it’s now named in McNair’s honour
In 2011, Lake City renamed the library that refused to lend 9-year-old Ronald books had a significant rebrand. 52 years after the cops arrived to find their suspect to be a polite little boy, the library became the Ronald McNair Life History Centre. The Centre houses a museum dedicated to the life of the astronaut and physicist. Today, the library where Ronald found inspiration and education against all odds inspires the next generation of scientists. It’s a sign of how much things have changed for the better, and a fitting last laugh for Ronald.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: