30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair

Tim Flight - December 28, 2019

Most people remember Ronald McNair (1950-86) as an astronaut who tragically lost his life on his second NASA mission. However, there’s so much more to McNair than his untimely death, and even being an astronaut. McNair became an astronaut after years as a pioneering research scientist, which given his poor background is impressive in itself. Astronaut, academic, martial artist, family man: in this article, we’ll learn about the many sides to Ronald McNair. He certainly packed a lot into his 35 years on earth, and his story is one that should inspire us all.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Before McNair, Lake City was most famous for its beans. SC Picture Project

30. McNair was born to poor parents in Lake City, South Carolina

Lake City is a small city in the agricultural part of South Carolina, and it’s where our story starts. There, on October 21, 1950, Pearl McNair gave birth to her second son, Ronald. She taught at high school, and her husband Carl worked as an auto body repairman. Pearl and Carl were not wealthy, and worked really hard to provide for their three sons. Carl taught car mechanics to his sons, and Ronald’s exceptional talent for it led to his nickname, Gizmo. Simultaneously, Pearl tutored the boys academically, and Ronald could read and write before he started school.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
A mob killed Frazer Baker and his infant daughter Julia in Lake City, in 1898. This is his surviving family, pictured in 1899. Wikimedia Commons

29. Lake City has a troubled race history

Lake City in the 1950s was fairly typical of a pre-Civil Rights Southern rural settlement. The city was home to segregated black and white populations. Think of what Martin Luther King Jr. fought against in the 1960s, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of life in Lake City during Ronald McNair’s childhood. Lake City’s history is peppered with racial injustice. In 1898, for example, a notorious murder took place there. A white mob burned the house of Frazier B. Baker, shooting him and his infant daughter dead when they fled. Baker’s crime? Being Lake City’s first black postmaster.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
A field of cotton. Clemson University

28. He spent his childhood picking cotton and tobacco

To help the family make ends meet, the McNair brothers took low-paid jobs as children. They worked from dawn till dusk, picking cotton and tobacco on farms bordering Lake City. The backbreaking work brought in $4 each a day, and served as a brutal reminder of the legacy of slavery. But Ronald later said the fields were the making of him. ‘I gained qualities in that cotton field’, he recalled. ‘I got tough. I learned to endure. I refuse to quit.’ Incredibly, two of his Lake City cotton-field contemporaries went on to study law and medicine at Yale and Columbia.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
The library as it looks today. Stevens and Wilkinson

27. He once refused to leave a racially-segregated library when they wouldn’t lend him some books

A charming story from Ronald’s childhood gives a sense of his character and determination. Aged 9, he walked alone to the public library to borrow some books. In 1959, ‘public’ meant ‘whites only’. As the library patrons stared, open-jawed, little Ronald politely queued with his stack of books. The shocked librarian informed him that the library allowed ‘no coloureds’. Ronald simply replied, ‘well, I’d like to check out these books’. The library threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave, but Ronald wouldn’t move. Surprisingly, when the amused police arrived, they ordered the librarian to lend him the books.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
The football pitch at Ronald E. McNair High School in Stockton, California. Brock USA

26. As well as academically, McNair excelled as a sportsman

At school, Ronald excelled in all subjects. ‘We all knew that Ron was smarter than the rest of us’, remembered a school friend in 1986. ‘His determination made the rest of us eager to study hard’. However, his brilliance didn’t stop there. Far from being a stereotypical nerd, Ronald also trounced his peers on the sports field at Carver High School. He was Carver’s star player in basketball, baseball and American Football. Somehow he also found time to play saxophone in the school band. In fact, his musical talent was so great he even considered a degree in music.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Students at McNair’s old high school, renamed from Carver High School in his honour, celebrate the school’s most famous alumnus. Sharp School

25. McNair graduated as class valedictorian in 1967

Unsurprisingly, McNair was an outstanding student at Carver, and graduated as class valedictorian. But though school was an absolute breeze for him, you have to give his parents credit for keeping him focused. Many talented children get bored of school if it’s too easy, and fall off the rails. When Ronald was a boy, there were no schemes to help gifted children. Instead, Pearl and Carl worked their backsides off to buy encyclopedias for their children. They kept this future astronaut grounded by teaching him the value of hard work and helping others. Boy, did he fly with their help?

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
North Carolina AT&T University. YouVisit

24. He read physics as North Carolina AT&T University

With his aunt’s help, Ronald successfully applied for a scholarship to North Carolina AT&T University. Ronald credited his love of science to the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite in 1957. The TV show Star Trek, with its multi-ethnic cast, inspired him to dream of one day getting to space. Although his state scholarship rewarded McNair’s formidable intelligence and achievements, it also reflected racism in South Carolina. According to his former lecturer, Tom Sandin, ‘[the scholarship] was given to any black student who would go out of state’. ‘It was their way of keeping blacks out [of South Carolina]’.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
An aerial shot of MIT, c.1970s. MIT Libraries

23. He became Dr. McNair after being awarded a Ph.D. from MIT in 1976

After graduating from North Carolina alongside his older brother Carl in 1971, Ronald went on to even better things. Tom Sandin wrote him a recommendation to the celebrated Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Ronald again won a scholarship. Despite his initial concerns about moving so far from home and attending a predominantly white university, Ronald accepted the funding. Ronald was right to be concerned. As well as encountering institutional racism, he had to work extra hard to work alongside students with superior educational backgrounds. At MIT, he specialized in laser physics, and got his Ph.D. in 1976.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair as a Ph.D. student at MIT, 1970s. MIT Black History

22. Incredibly, 2 years of data were stolen, and he had to get the results all over again for his PhD

As if institutional racism, homesickness and playing catch-up with privately educated peers weren’t enough, Ronald’s research took another severe blow. Disaster struck in his third year, and could have ended his academic career altogether. The results he’d recorded over 2 painstaking years were stolen. Not to be deterred, Ronald remarkably produced 2 years of results in just 1 year. This is one of many things Ronald meant when he spoke of the cotton farm teaching him endurance and determination. At MIT, Ronald also met his wife, Cheryl Moore, a native of Queens, New York, who attended the same church.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Texas Southern University, where McNair was a visiting lecturer in physics. YouVisit

21. Before he become an astronaut, Dr. McNair had a successful academic career

Aged 26, Dr. McNair had a new wife and a Ph.D. from one of the world’s most prestigious universities. But still, he wouldn’t rest on his laurels. He authored several academic papers, published his doctoral thesis, and lectured at various universities. He eventually settled for a job at Hughes Research Labs in Malibu, California. The laboratory is named after its founder, the legendary film director and pilot, Howard Hughes. Hughes in the 1970s was a veritable hotbed of scientific discovery and pioneering, and its jobs were much sought-after. At Hughes, Ronald continued his research, and specialized in chemical and high-pressure lasers.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair gives a commencement address at the University of South Carolina in 1984. YouTube

20. He got numerous honorary degrees before finding fame as an astronaut

We said right at the start that there’s so much more to Ronald McNair than space. His contemporaries certainly thought so, and before becoming a famous astronaut Ronald was honored accordingly. In 1978, North Carolina AT&T gave him an honorary doctorate in Law. He got another in science from Morris College. 1979 saw Ronald named a Distinguished National Scientist by the National Society of Black Professional Engineers. More awards only followed his fame as an astronaut. In 1984, after his first orbit, the University of South Carolina followed suit and gave him an honorary doctorate in science.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
The Bahá’í Faith embraces many different religions, as this pillar from a temple in Wilmette, Illinois shows. Wikimedia Commons

19. McNair was a member of the Bahá’í Faith

The Bahá’í Faith is a religion that preaches the essential worth of all religions and the equality of all people. It dates back to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, who established it in Persia in 1863. Ronald was a committed member of the faith. He first encountered the Bahá’í faith in Lake City in the 1960s, where two local women taught him. Ronald became a lifelong member. He took his fellow astronauts to a prayer meeting the night before their death in January, 1986. When the Challenger exploded on that fateful day, Ronald had his book of Bahá’í prayers with him.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair in his karate outfit, 1970s. Twitter

18. He had a black belt in karate

Ronald didn’t give up his love of sport when he became a successful research scientist. He first began studying karate at North Carolina AT&T, and almost immediately excelled at it. He even founded a karate school for kids at his local church when studying at MIT. The same year he got his Ph.D. and married his wife, Ronald won the 1976 Amateur Athletic Union Gold Medal. He won 5 regional championships, too, and eventually became a fifth-degree black belt. This just goes to show how important, and indeed achievable, balance is in life, even if you’re a doctoral student.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair with Guion Bluford and Fred Gregory, two other astronauts from the 1978 intake. Wikimedia Commons

17. In 1978, McNair was one of 35 successful applicants to NASA from a pool of 10,000

Ronald first started to think seriously about becoming an astronaut when he got a flyer in the mail in 1976. However, it wasn’t until 1978 that he applied, whilst still working at Hughes Research Labs. Even for a sporting polymath like Dr. McNair, competition was rife. 10,000 people applied in 1978, and only 35 were successful. McNair was one of them, but once again disaster struck. A car accident left him seriously injured, and doctors feared he wouldn’t recover in time for NASA training. Ronald, of course, did so, against all expectations, and began his training in 1979.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair on board a shuttle, 1980s. UAB

16. He became a mission specialist astronaut

NASA selected McNair for his scientific prowess. After years of just sending pilots up into space, the organization 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair at the controls, 1980s. SpaceCenter

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 to 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair becomes the first person in history to play a saxophone in space, 1984. MIT Black History

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 Bahá’í 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 favorite 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Jean-Michel Jarre dedicated the final track of his 1986 album, Rendez-Vous, to McNair. CD and LP

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 ‘Dernier Rendez-Vous’ to the astronaut’s memory. Jarre subtitled it ‘Ron’s Piece’.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair and the rest of the Challenger crew pose for an official portrait in November 1985. Wikimedia Commons

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

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Challenger explodes on January, 28 1986. Wikimedia Commons

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 11:38 am 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Challenger begins to disintegrate, 58 seconds after launch. Wikimedia Commons

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 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Recovered debris from the wreckage. Wikimedia Commons

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 afterward. 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair and his son, Reginald, in the early 1980s. Pinterest

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 honoring 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 organization.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair’s tomb in Lake City. OTIS

7. McNair was buried in Lake City

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, ‘I 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Members of the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger tragedy, at Cape Kennedy in March 1986. Wikimedia Commons

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 criticized 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
Memorial to McNair in the Lake City park named in his honour. Scripture Project

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 Ph.D. 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
In turn, Neil deGrasse Tyson has inspired another generation of scientists. The Atlantic

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 Ph.D. 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. ‘An 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair, Guion Bluford and Frederick Gregory in May 1979. Wikimedia Commons

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 in 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.

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair Hall, North Carolina AT&T University. Wikimedia Commons

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 honor, 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…

30 Facts About Challenger Astronaut, Ronald McNair
McNair on board the Challenger, 1984. Berkeley

1. Remember that racist library? Well, it’s now named in McNair’s honor

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:

Clendinen, Dudley. “Astronaut Buried in Carolina; 35-Year ‘Mission’ is Complete.” New York Times, May 18, 1986.

Clendinen, Dudley. “Two Pathes to the Stars: Turnings and Triumphs; Ronald McNair.” New York Times, February 9, 1986.

Paul, Richard. We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

Smith, Bruce. “Hundreds Attend Memorial For Astronaut McNair With AM-Shuttle-Churches, Bjt.” Associated Press News, February 3, 1986.

Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996

Williams, Scott. “Ronald E. McNair, Physicist of the African Diaspora.” Physicists of the African Diaspora.