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McNAIR Center

  • Ronald E. McNair

Our Namesake

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.

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