McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina, to Pearl M. and Carl C. McNair. He had two brothers, Carl and Eric A. McNair.
In the summer of 1959, he refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library without being allowed to check out his books. After the police and his mother were called, he was allowed to borrow books from the library; the building that housed the library at the time is now named after him. A children's book, Ron's Big Mission, offers a fictionalized account of this event. His brother, Carl also wrote the official biography, In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair—Astronaut: An American Hero.
In 1978, McNair was selected as one of thirty-five applicants from a pool of ten thousand for the NASA astronaut program. He flew as a mission specialist on STS-41-B aboard Challenger from February 3 to February 11, 1984, becoming the second African American to fly in space.
Following the STS-41-B mission, McNair was selected for STS-51-L as one of three mission specialists in a crew of seven. The mission launched on January 28, 1986. He was killed when Challengerdisintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds after liftoff. The disintegration also killed six other crew members.
He was initially buried at Rest Lawn Memorial Park in Lake City, South Carolina. His remains were disinterred in 2004 and moved to Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park, located elsewhere in Lake City.
Before his last fateful space mission, he had worked with the composer Jean-Michel Jarre on a piece of music for Jarre's then-upcoming album Rendez-Vous. It was intended that he would record his saxophone solo onboard the Challenger, which would have made McNair's solo the first original piece of music to have been recorded in space (although the song "Jingle Bells" had been played on a harmonica during an earlier Gemini 6 spaceflight). However, the recording was never made, as the flight ended in the disaster and the deaths of its entire crew. The final track on Rendez-Vous, "Last Rendez-Vous," has the subtitle "Ron's Piece," and the liner notes include a dedication from Jarre: "Ron was so excited about the piece that he rehearsed it continuously until the last moment. May the memory of my friend the astronaut and the artist Ron McNair live on through this piece." Ron McNair was supposed to have taken part in Jarre's Rendez-vous Houston concert through a live feed from the orbiting Shuttlecraft.
McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004, along with all crew members lost in the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
On January 29, 2011, the Lake City, South Carolina, library was dedicated as the Ronald McNair Life History Center. When Ronald McNair was eight, the police and his mother were called because he wished to check out books from this library, which served only white patrons before he arrived. He said, "I'll wait," to the lady and sat on the counter until the police and his mother arrived, and the officer said, "Why don't you just give him the books?" which the lady behind the counter reluctantly did. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am," as he got the books. The episode as recalled by his brother Carl McNair has been depicted in a short animated film.
Several K-12 schools have also been named after McNair.
The song "A Drop Of Water," recorded by Japanese jazz artist Keiko Matsui, with vocals by the late Carl Anderson, was written in tribute to McNair.
The Jean Michel Jarre track "Last Rendez-Vous" was re-titled "Ron's Piece" in his honor. McNair was originally due to record the track in space aboard Challenger, and then perform it via a live link up in Jarre's Rendez-vous Houston concert.
The federally-funded McNair Scholars/Achievement Programs award research money and internships to juniors and seniors who are first-generation and low-income, or members of groups that are underrepresented, in preparation for graduate study. 187 institutions participate (as of 2020). Michigan State University and Washington State University are two examples of these programs and both offer Summer Research Opportunity Program as additional program components.
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^"Eyes on the Stars". StoryCorps. January 28, 2013. Retrieved February 22, 2021. On January 28, 1986, NASA Challenger mission STS-51-L ended in tragedy when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff. On board was physicist Ronald E. McNair, who was the second African American person to enter space. But first, he was a kid with big dreams in Lake City, South Carolina.
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