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McNAIR Center

  • McNair Center graduate student office space

About the Center

The Ronald E. McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research is a university center focused on advancing education, research, workforce development, and industry engagement. The McNAIR Center research team includes faculty from mechanical, chemical, civil and electrical engineering.

The mission of the McNAIR Center is to advance South Carolina's knowledge-based economy through innovative research, interdisciplinary education, economic development, outreach and collaboration with the aerospace and allied industries and related government agencies. Based on industry needs, the McNAIR Center supports research involving a wide range of topics such as composites, thermoplastics, predictive analytics, combustion, 3D-printing, unmanned vehicles and digital transformation.

A dedicated team of professionals now guides our research, education, and partnership efforts. We invite you to contact us and find out how the McNair Center can work for you.

Ronald McNair

Ronald E. McNair was the unlikeliest of heroes and, although McNair's inspiring career was cut short in the Challenger space shuttle tragedy in 1986, his legacy continues in many ways.

Ronald Erwin McNair

Ronald Erwin McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, S.C., to Carl and Pearl McNair. He attended North Carolina A&T State University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1971. McNair then enrolled in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned his Ph.D. degree in physics in 1976 at the age of 25. 

McNair soon became a recognized expert in laser physics while working as staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory. NASA selected him for the space shuttle program in 1978 and assigned him as mission specialist aboard the 1984 flight of the Challenger.

On January 28, 1986 during his second Challenger mission, McNair was serving as a mission specialist when the shuttle broke apart just 73 seconds into its flight. The shuttle disintegrated, and McNair and the shuttle's six other crew members were killed in the tragedy.

Honors and Achievements

McNair received three honorary doctorate degrees and many fellowships and commendations. These included Presidential Scholar, 1967-71; Ford Foundation Fellow, 1971-74; National Fellowship Fund Fellow, 1974-75; named 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; as well as many others.

He also held a fifth-degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist. He was married and had a son and a daughter.

Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program

After his death, Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. This 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. This program is dedicated to the high standard of achievement Ronald McNair's life represented.

RONALD E. MCNAIR (1950-1986) Biography

1950 – Born October 21, 1950 in Lake City, SC

1967 – Valedictorian, Carver High School

1971 – B.S., magna cum laude, engineering physics, NC A&T State University, 1971

1976 – Ph.D., physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Became staff physicist, Hughes Research Lab, Malibu, CA.

1978 – Chosen as one of 35 applicants for the NASA astronaut program

1984 – Mission specialist, STS-41-B Challenger

1986 – Mission specialist, STS-51-LChallenger. Died January 28, 1986.

Women with a Vision

During a dinner to celebrate the opening of McNair, Anita Zucker said her gift is an example of Tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means "repairing the world" or "healing the world." The McNAIR Center achieves this through providing opportunities for education that will transform South Carolina into a more prosperous state.

I believe he would have been so very honored. It’s touching because this is what he always wanted to do — to influence others, especially those in his own state.

- Cheryl McNair, wife of Ronald McNair

Darla Moore

The McNAIR Aerospace Center launched in 2011 based on a pledge of $5 million by University of South Carolina alumna and benefactor, Darla Moore, '75 business. Moore made the donation in memory of her fellow Lake City, S.C., native Ronald E. McNair.


Anita Zucker

In 2012, USC announced a second $5 million pledge to the center dedicated to create the Zucker Institute for Aerospace Innovation within the McNAIR Center. As a former elementary school teacher, she knows the importance of an educated world. Zucker is chairwoman and CEO of The InterTech Group which employees 15,000 people and produces devices used in aerospace, aviation and power generation, as well as other products and services.


Marva Smalls

A Florence S.C. native and USC graduate, Marva Smalls is an executive vice president at Viacom and Nickelodeon. She donated $1 million to endow scholarships for minority students from the state's Pee Dee region majoring in computer science and engineering.


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

- Ronald E. McNair (1950-1986)

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.