Ronald McNair was the second African-American in space. S.C. native died at age 35 in Challenger space shuttle explosion.
Ronald E. McNair’s zest for life and knowledge made history in South Carolina, but the astronaut’s life was tragically cut short doing what he loved.
McNair grew up in Lake City, graduating from Carver High School and the getting a bachelor’s degree from N.C. A&T State University and a doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also received honorary doctorates from N.C. A&T, Morris College and the University of South Carolina. He was an accomplished jazz saxophonist and a fifth degree black belt Karate instructor.
The physicist known for his work in laser physics took learning seriously, even at a young age.
At age 9 during segregation, a young McNair tried to check out science and math books from the town library. The library refused and called the police, but McNair persisted. Eventually, police determined McNair was not creating a public disturbance and he won the battle after his mother promised the books would be returned.
NASA selected McNair as an astronaut candidate in 1978 and he flew his first mission in 1984, becoming the second African-American to fly in space.
He was assigned as a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded 73 seconds after launch from the Kennedy Space Center — 30 years ago this week, on Jan. 28, 1986. McNair, 35, and six others on the flight died.
McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
The Ronald E. McNair Life History Center, which showcases his life and encourages younger generations to explore, opened in 2011 in Lake City.
The city’s mayor said McNair loved his hometown and had planned one day to move back.