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.
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 McNairCenter
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
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.
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
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.