Ronald Erwin McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. An African-American born into a climate of racial segregation, Ronald McNair dreamed of becoming a future scientist. His self-determination and motivation resulted in exemplary academic success. He graduated valedictorian of his high school class. Accepted by North Carolina A&T University, he graduated with a B.S. degree in physics in 1971. Continuing his education, he ultimately received his Ph.D. in quantum electronics and laser technology in 1976 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. McNair's academic honors included being named a Presidential Scholar, a Ford Foundation Fellow, a National Fellowship Fund Fellow, a NATO Fellow, winner of Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year Award, and Distinguished Alumni Award. In addition to his numerous academic honors, Dr. McNair was an accomplished saxophone player and was a 5th degree, black-belt karate instructor.
In January of 1978, Dr. McNair was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA. The following year he would be qualified for an assignment on the Space Shuttle Challenger as a mission specialist astronaut. As a mission specialist on STS 41-B, Dr. McNair flew his first mission, which launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on February 3, 1984.
The flight was successful, accomplishing the proper shuttle deployment of two Hughes 376 communications satellites. This mission marked the first flight of the Manned Maneuvering Unit and the first use of the Canadian arm, operated by Dr. McNair, to position EVA crewman around Challenger's payload bay. The Challenger concluded its mission in the first landing on the runway at Kennedy Space Center on February 11, 1984. Nearly two years later, on a cold January morning, Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair would board the Challenger Space Shuttle on his second space mission. On January 28, 1986, tragedy would strike. Shortly after lift off from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Dr. Ronald McNair was one of seven individuals aboard who met an untimely death. Dr. McNair is survived by his wife, Cheryl and his two children.
In 1986, in memory of Dr. Ronald E. McNair, the United States Congress established the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, commonly known as the McNair Scholars Program. The program was created to increase educational opportunities to students who are from low-income, first-generation families, and/or those who are from ethnic backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in graduate education. It is funded through the U.S. Department of Education.
His lifelong commitment to scholarship lives on in the McNair Scholars who are selected each year to participate in the many McNair programs across the United States. The McNair Scholars Program at RIT is dedicated to preserving Dr. McNair's legacy of scholarship and accomplishment.