Ronald McNair: Challenger tragedy cut short scientist’s career

AJC Sepia Black History Month


Ronald E. McNair marched up to the library in his little town of Lake City, S.C., to check out some books.

The bespectacled 9-year-old was a serious student — he had started going to school at age 4 — and the books he wanted were about science and physics.

Since this was 1959, McNair’s quest was a bold one. The librarian informed him that the library only served whites, and said if he didn’t leave, she would call the police.

“I’ll wait,” said McNair.

The cops came, they suggested the librarian let the boy have his books, and McNair went home, satisfied.

The intrepid student would grow up to become a graduate of both the historically black North Carolina A&T State University and MIT and an astronaut, a man who would continue to travel to the edges of possibility as a crew member of the space shuttle.

Tragedy ended McNair’s brilliant career too soon, when he was only 35. On Jan. 28, 1986, on his second shuttle mission, McNair died, along with his crewmates, when the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff.

McNair is remembered in Atlanta at three schools that bear his name: McNair High School, McNair Middle School and the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy.

His brother Carl McNair, an Atlanta resident, has also created the McNair Achievement Programs and the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation, which allows hundreds of students annually to learn through summer camp activities based in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

While at MIT, McNair performed experiments with carbon dioxide lasers, and went on to study laser physics at the Ecole d’Ete Theorique de Physique, Les Houches, France. Later, he became a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif.

Besides science, McNair also enjoyed playing jazz saxophone, martial arts and cooking.



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