Ronald Erwin McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. Growing up in a studying house of education-minded parents, he learned to read at three, then entered school at the tender age of four. His parents noticed early on how bright he was, and his exceptional interest in learning. Never one to run away from a challenge, at nine he politely refused to leave the segregated Lake City library (despite the police and his mother being called) without being allowed to check out books. Teachers and family appreciated his unique academic gifts, along with his helpful, and competitive nature. That led to his graduating from high school as valedictorian and receiving his bachelor's degree in physics magna cum laude in 1971 from North Carolina A&T State University (Greensboro). Despite discovering he was initially far behind his fellow university students, he worked harder, studied more, and added coursework to ensure his success. Five years later he earned a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thanks in part to a Ford Foundation Fellowship
In 1978, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Dr. McNair as one of 35 candidates for the space shuttle program, from a pool of 10,000 applicants. After completing a one-year special training and evaluation program, he became qualified for assignment as a mission specialist astronaut.
His first space shuttle mission launched successfully from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on February 3, 1984. He was next selected by NASA to serve as mission specialist aboard the ill-fated U.S. Challenger space shuttle flight of January 28, 1986. He died alongside the entire crew when the Challenger exploded one minute, thirteen seconds after it was launched.
That tragedy ended Dr. McNair’s contributions to space exploration, but in his memory the United States Congress established the national Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program later in 1986. Dr. McNair’s life story of motivation, dedication, and continuous perseverance to overcome obstacles provides an inspiration to all McNair program participants.