McNair Scholars

About Ronald E. McNair


Brief Biography of Ronald McNair 

Physicist Ronald Erwin McNair was America’s second black astronaut and one of seven crew members killed in the space shuttle Challenger explosion January 28, 1986. The flight would have been his second voyage in space.

Although his death and those of his crewmembers were a national tragedy, this is not what distinguished him. McNair exemplified a life that knew no obstacles. He excelled academically despite the racial discrimination he experienced growing up in the South during the 1950s and 1960s. Later, in 1984 he broke the bonds of Earth as a scientist aboard the 10th space shuttle mission.

McNair was born October 12, 1950, in Lake City, S.C. His mother taught elementary school and his father was an automobile mechanic.

In 1971, McNair received a bachelor’s degree in physics from North Carolina A & T State University, graduating magna cum laude. At 26, he received his doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. McNair became a recognized expert in laser physics while on the staff of Hughes Research Laboratory.

His academic and professional achievements were stellar: a Presidential Scholar, Ford Foundation Fellow, and Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year. He also was named Distinguished National Scientist by the National Society of Black Professional Engineers.

He developed an expertise in laser physics while working at the Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu, California. In 1978, NASA selected him for the astronaut corps.

To commemorate his lifetime of accomplishments, the U.S. Department of Education, with funding from Congress, established the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage minority and low-income, first-generation college students to enroll in graduate studies and acquire a doctorate degree.

After his death, the U.S. Congress endowed the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage low-income, first generation, and underrepresented college students to expand their educational opportunities and pursue graduate studies.

You can find more information on Dr. McNair at NASA’s Astronaut Biographies page, a website maintained by Carl McNair, Ronald’s brother, McNair Achievement Program, as well as from the following two videos.

1997 Video Tribute to Ronald E. McNair, South Carolina State Hall of Fame Inductee

Story Corp animated video about a Ronald McNair’s childhood in segregated Lake City, South Carolina