Ronald McNairRonald Erwin McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina to Carl and Pearl McNair. Growing up, he spent summers working in the local cotton and tobacco fields and later, graduated valedictorian of Carver High School in 1967. He maintained a passion for his studies throughout college, graduating magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics in 1971, and was initiated into Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. At 25, McNair enrolled in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned a Ph.D. in physics and achieved his 5th degree black belt in karate.
Dr. McNair soon became a recognized expert in laser physics while working as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory. He was bestowed with three honorary doctorate degrees and a host of fellowships and commendation including Presidential Scholar, 1967-71; Ford Foundation Fellow, 1971-74; National Fellowship Fund Fellow, 1974-75; Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the year, 1975; Distinguished National Scientist, National Society of Black Professional Engineers, 1979; and the Friend of Freedom Award, 1981; and a litany of others.
In 1978, Dr. McNair was selected as one of 35 applicants from a pool of 10,000 for the NASA astronaut program and flew aboard Challenger in 1984 becoming the second Africa-American to fly in space. He was subsequently selected to fly on the January 28, 1986 mission of Challenger, where part of his mission, as an accomplished jazz saxophonist, would be to record the first original composition in space. The recording, tragically, was never made. Dr. McNair was killed, after only 73 seconds in flight, in what is known the world over, as the space shuttle Challenger disaster that killed all of its crewmembers, including the first member of the Teacher In Space project.
Following his death, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. The program is designed to prepare and encourage low income, first generation, and underrepresented students to enroll in a graduate program of study leading to a doctoral degree and to consider careers in college teaching. The program is dedicated to the high standard of achievement Ronald E. McNair's life represented.