University of South Carolina

McNair Centerís $5 million pledge from Darla Moore helping aerospace take off in South Carolina

By Steven Powell,, 803-777-1923

Ronald McNair’s words are once again echoing on the University of South Carolina campus.

The second African-American to travel into space, McNair was USC’s commencement speaker in August 1984. His words then were recalled on Aug. 17 at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library. An aerospace industry banquet there marked USC’s push in aerospace initiatives through the McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research.

Provost Michael Amiridis quoted from McNair’s 1984 address to USC students:

“The road between South Carolina and space flight is not a very simple one, nor is it one filled with guarantees. In fact, the only guarantees to be found are those that reside in the unchallenged depths of our own determination.”

McNair’s life was a testament to determination, Amiridis noted. As a young boy from Lake City, S.C., he “frequently and habitually did things that others didn’t expect that he would do.

“He did very well in school. And he was not expected to – people that looked like him, as a matter of fact, were not allowed at that time to borrow books from the public library. But very politely, and very persistently, he stayed in the library until he borrowed his books, and forced the library to change the rules in Lake City.”

“In the late ‘60s, he was not expected to study physics,” Amiridis said. “Later in life, he said ‘the only physics experiment that I had done before I went to college was mixing water and Kool-Aid, and I’m not sure I was getting it right.’”

“But he did study physics, and he did very well in college. People didn’t expect him, probably, from Lake City, S.C., to go all the way to MIT and get a doctoral degree in laser physics. He was an early contributor, and a significant contributor, to the literature of laser physics.”

McNair joined NASA and spent eight days in space in February 1984 on Space Shuttle Challenger’s fourth flight. On his next mission, on Jan. 28, 1986, he perished when Challenger exploded.

But his legacy endures. His widow, Cheryl M. McNair, established the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Educational (DREME) Science Literacy Foundation based in Houston, Texas, to help students, and particularly the underserved, learn science, technology, engineering and mathematics. More than 4,500 students have participated in the foundation’s programs.

And in 2011, fellow Lake City native Darla Moore pledged $5 million to establish the McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research at USC. McNair himself wanted to be a part of research that would support South Carolina’s aerospace and aviation industries.

“Many of you probably don’t know, but Ronald McNair was planning for the Challenger flight to be his last flight,” Amiridis said. “In fact, he had agreed to take a faculty position here at the University of South Carolina in mechanical engineering, working with laser physics, but also working in aeronautical engineering and establishing a program here.”

“We are a few years late, but we’re delighted that we’re finally doing what he wanted to do.”

USC is undertaking in a wide range of new aerospace initiatives, Amiridis said. Later this month, USC will open a state-of-the-art research facility for studying the effects of lightning on the composite materials now common in aircraft. Two new master’s programs, in aerospace engineering and engineering management, will be in place next spring. Two more degree programs in systems design are nearing approval.

The university is in the final stages of selecting a partner to help expand the reach of its programs. “We will be partnering with a technology firm, the leader in its field nationwide, that will help us convert all of these degree programs, especially in aerospace and engineering management, in an asynchronous, online format that is going to be state-of-the-art,” Amiridis said.

An array of new alliances have been forged: with Sheffield University, a premier research center in Europe, Georgia Tech, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, The Citadel, Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation and others.

At the recent aerospace banquet at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library on the USC campus, the audience was filled with representatives of regional aviation firms, with whom USC hopes to form partnerships. The sponsor list included KTM Solutions, Champion Aerospace, Lockheed-Martin Greenville, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, Michelin, Zeus, SCRA, Triumph Fabrications-Orangeburg and L3.

“Our mandate from our benefactor, but also for the legacy of Ronald McNair, is to work together with others, to build on collaborations across all levels,” Amiridis said. “We will focus on innovation, in everything that the center does, and also on research, education and outreach. We will keep our eyes on the final target, which is the economic impact that the center can have for the state of South Carolina.”

Cheryl McNair was recognized at the banquet, and the astronaut’s widow appreciated how the new center will broaden Ronald McNair’s legacy. “It’s a continuation of his dream to inspire and encourage our youth,” she said. “To inspire them, to encourage them – that is what this is continuing to do. To encourage students that they, too, from South Carolina, can enter into the world of aerospace.”


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Posted: 08/21/12 @ 5:00 PM | Updated: 08/28/12 @ 9:33 AM | Permalink