Historical Perspective on the Program's Legacy
Ronald E. McNair, born October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, was a NASA astronaut, accomplished physicist, and performing saxophonist, as well as 5th-degree black belt Karate instructor. Despite humble origins, McNair was an exceptional student and graduated as valedictorian of Lake City’s Carver High School in 1967. From there, he received a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina A&T State University on scholarship in 1971, and shortly thereafter a Ph.D. in Physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. Throughout his career, McNair was also the recipient of numerous honorary degrees in law, and science.
After graduating from MIT, McNair became a staff physicist for Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. There, among other things, he researched electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications, and became a recognized expert in the field of laser physics. Based on these many and various accomplishments, McNair was encouraged to apply to the space program, where he was accepted in 1978. On February 3, 1984, McNair became the second African-American to fly in space.
Later selected as a mission specialist on the ill-fated Challenger flight of January 28, 1986, Dr. McNair tragically lost his life, along with the rest of the crew, when the Space Shuttle exploded nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean, shortly after launch. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. In further efforts to preserve the legacy of Dr. Ronald E. McNair, Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program (McNair Scholars) in order to encourage low-income and first generation students, as well as students from underrepresented ethnic groups to pursue doctoral degrees and academic careers. The program embodies McNair’s passion for learning and the importance of maintaining the progressive spirit of academia.