About Ronald E. McNair

Posed photo of Ronald McNair in his NASA jumpsuit with an image of the space shuttle behind him.
Astronaut Dr. Ronald E. McNair was assigned as a mission specialist and was a crew member on two Space Shuttle Missions. He first flew on STS 41-B in 1984 where he performed numerous science experiments. On his second flight, STS 51-L, McNair died on January 28, 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after launch from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. NASA Photograph

Ronald E. McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. Click here for a StoryCorps feature called Eyes on the Stars, narrated by Ronald McNair’s brother Carl.After graduating Valedictorian of his high school class, McNair attended North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, where, in 1971, he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of science in physics. He went on to study physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology, completing his Ph.D. in 1977.

As a student he performed some of the earliest work on chemical HF/DF and high pressure CO lasers, publishing remarkable scientific papers on the subject. After completing his Ph.D. he began working as a physicist at the Optical Physics Department of Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, and conducted research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications. McNair’s research brought him into close contact with the space program for the first time and when the opportunity presented itself, he applied for astronaut training.

In January 1978 NASA selected him to enter the astronaut cadre as one of the first three African Americans selected. McNair became the second African American in space between February 3 and 11, 1984, by flying on the Challenger shuttle mission STS-41-B. Two years later McNair and his six crew members died in an explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger. In his memory, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage low-income, first generation college students to enroll in graduate studies. This program is dedicated to the high standard of achievement that Ronald E. McNair’s life represented.