Ronald McNair was just 35 years old when he died aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle.
On the morning of January 28th, 1986, crowds gathered at the Kennedy Space Center paused for a long, confusing moment, as the excitement of the Shuttle Challenger launch turned to horror. The craft broke apart some 73 seconds after liftoff and smoke plumes formed in the sky. All seven astronauts aboard, including McNair and teacher Christa McAuliffe, who’s presence had generated Apollo-era levels of excitement, would perish as their crew compartment tumbled through the sky, descending into the ocean.
The cause of the accident, determined by a presidential commission, was due to a failure of the ‘O-ring’ seal on one of Challenger’s solid rocket boosters. The breach allowed hot gas to leak into the hydrogen fuel tank. Launching on an unusually cold January morning, engineers had warned that the O-ring could fail due to lower temperatures, but the decision was made by mission managers — under pressure to keep to a busy launch schedule — to proceed.
That choice cost the lives of seven intrepid astronauts, survived by their 7 shattered families — 6 widows and 11 children. Among them were McNair’s wife Cheryl and his infant son and daughter.
In the years since this shocking tragedy, the final voyage of the Challenger has been memorialized in literature and television documentaries, like the one which premiered last week on Netflix. There are even Challenger Learning Centers set up across the world. But while the fateful mission — and the mistakes that were made — are well documented, the stories of those on board, with the exception of McAuliffe, are somewhat lesser well-known.
The doomed flight of the Challenger had been McNair’s second spaceflight. Two years earlier, in February of 1984, he became only the second African American to launch to space and overcame extraordinary odds to do so.
McNair grew up in a low-income community in South Carolina, 90 miles north of Charleston. The house where he was born at-times had no running water or electricity. McNair’s father was a mechanic, his mother a teacher. As a child, he was fascinated by science — an interest sparked by the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik. Growing up at a time when humanity was beginning to dip its toes in the space age, McNair grew more curious and earned the nickname Gizmo from his fellow classmates.
Chasing his curiosity one day, a nine-year-old McNair walked alone to the local Lake City Public Library, to check out books on advanced science and calculus. But this was the Jim Crow era, and a time of segregation. This meant that a young black man’s book request led to the involvement of the police. “We don’t circulate books to negros”, McNair was told by the librarian, who called local authorities. McNair said “I’ll wait,” and he did. Even after the arrival of two police officers and his mother, he refused to back down and was eventually able to borrow the books, promising he would look after them.
By 1966, during the height of the American-Soviet space race, astronauts were celebrities, but they didn’t exactly represent a diverse population. McNair didn’t see himself, or someone that looked like him, in those spacesuits just yet. Now 16 years old, he didn’t fly, he wore glasses, and he wasn’t white. But in that same year, a groundbreaking television show premiered, Star Trek, that depicted a more inclusive vision for our future in space. A series which showed, for the first time, people of different ethnicities exploring the galaxy.
After high school, overcoming poverty, segregation, and ugly stereotypes, McNair was awarded a scholarship to college, where a counselor had encouraged him to study physics. This encouragement led McNair to graduate with a Bachelor's in Engineering Physics from North Carolina A&T State University and heading off to begin graduate studies at MIT.
A young man who grew up doing farm work was now conducting research alongside the brightest minds in the world. But tragedy struck. While completing his Ph.D. in laser physics, McNair was mugged, and among the possessions taken was a case containing two years of data from his research. He lost everything.
But instead of falling into despair, McNair got back to work. Within a year he had recreated his lost data.
By the late 1970s, NASA’s astronaut recruitment pool was starting to reflect a more diverse American population. African Americans, as well as women, were to be recruited for this new astronaut class. The jump in recruitment was aided by Trek luminary Nichelle Nichols — or Uhura as she’s known on Trek’s Original series. Nichols was employed by NASA to help with outreach in minority communities.
McNair, by this time, was working at the Hughes Research Facility in Malibu as a laser physicist and was among those selected to the class of 1978. One of three African Americans and six women in a class of 35. The flight of the Challenger in January 1986 — where he would work as a Mission Specialist helping to deploy the tracking and communications satellite TDRS-B — would have been his second trip to space. His first flight was aboard the same vehicle in 1984, operating the shuttle's robotic arm, which helped astronaut Bruce McCandless conduct his historic tethered spacewalk.
A few months after his death, an open-air concert was held by the composer Jean-Michel Jarre in Houston to honor the astronaut. Besides being a brilliant scientist and pioneering astronaut, McNair was also an accomplished jazz saxophonist.
In fact, on his first mission, he became the first person to play a musical instrument in space. And this saxophone was once again making the journey with him aboard the Challenger, where he had been due to record music for the Jarre concert from space. Instead, Rendez-vous, the song he was scheduled to play, would be broadcast as a memorial to him and the other Challenger astronauts.
He was a man of many talents. Down at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral, McNair’s memorial exhibit shows off his karate gear. He held a fifth-degree black belt.
In 2011, the library where a young McNair had fought to borrow physics books was named in his honor. The once-segregated library now acts as a museum to honor the black astronaut who died serving both his country and humanity, in the pursuit of knowledge and exploration.
Today in 2020, we are still working toward full inclusion and it's an uphill battle. If we are to continue building toward the future McNair and so many others dedicated their lives to, we need to do so with a foundation of equality and justice. As we continue to push forward, we should remember both the tenacity and the determination of Ron McNair, what he had to overcome, and how society failed so many others like him.
Perhaps the greatest impact McNair had was on those who would follow in his footsteps. Among them former NASA administrator under Obama, and four-time shuttle astronaut Charles Bolden, who had never dreamed of being an astronaut until McNair “challenged him to apply.”
Sarah Cruddas, the author of this column, is a space journalist, tv host, and author with an academic background in astrophysics. You can order Sarah’s latest book Look Up: Our story with the stars here.