Black History Month honors one of first African-Americans in spa - WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

Black History Month honors one of first African-Americans in space

Dr. Ronald McNair (Source: NASA) Dr. Ronald McNair (Source: NASA)

January 28, 2016 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle disaster.

Part of the Challenger crew was physicist and one of the first African-Americans in space, Dr. Ronald McNair.

McNair was born in Lake City, South Carolina on October 21, 1950. He grew up in the segregated South. When he was about 8 or 9 years old, he was confronted with the peculiarities of segregation when he ventured to the local library to check out some books. The story is best recounted by his brother Carl in a StoryCorps interview. 

McNair graduated from North Carolina A&T State with a Bachelor of Science in physics, and received a PhD in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation was entitled “Energy Absorption and Vibrational Heating in Molecule Following Intense laser Excitation.”  McNair later studied laser physics at Ecole Dete Theorique de Physique in Les Houches, France. He received three honorary doctorates from North Carolina A&T State University, Morris College, and the University of South Carolina. He was also a Ford Foundation Fellow and a sixth degree black belt in karate. 

In 1978, McNair along with 34 others were selected from a pool of 8,079 applicants as candidates for the space program. In the 1960s as the country entered the space race, NASA’s astronaut program was decidedly white and male. Presumably influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, NASA’s push for diversity among its astronauts coincided with its transition from the Apollo spacecraft to the Shuttle spacecraft. The Shuttle was intended to serve as a permanent link between Earth and space by facilitating launching and landing protocols within one vessel. NASA’s recruitment efforts were enhanced by the use of Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols, better known as Lt. Uhura. The 1978 shuttle program candidate class included six women, among them Sally Ride, the first woman in space; 3 African-Americans, and one Asian-American.  McNair along with Guion Bluford, Jr., and Frederick Gregory entered the program knowing that when they finished, one of them would be the first African-American in outer space. The honor would ultimately go to Guion Bluford, Jr. when he flew his first mission in 1983.

There are numerous scholars and scientists following the legacy of Dr. Ronald E. McNair today. One of the federal TRIO programs bears McNair’s name, Ronald E. McNair Post Baccalaureate Achievement Program. The program is funded by the Department of Education in 151 institutions in the United States and Puerto Rico. It prepares undergraduates for doctoral programs. I know many scholars and professors who were McNair program graduates and owe their success to their training in the program. His widow, Cheryl McNair and his children, Reggie and Joy, created their own organization, The DREME Foundation, which promotes STEM disciplines among school children. Together, these two organizations are insuring that next group of groundbreaking scholars have the opportunity, fortitude, and tools to impact society.

We may never know what type of scientist or public intellectual Ronald McNair would have been. The success of his namesake programs and the few available speeches indicate that he would have been an inspiring one. 


Arcynta Ali Childs, “Q & A:  Nichelle Nichols AKA Lt. Uhura, and NASA,” Smithsonian Magazine June 23, 2011

Dr. Ronald E. McNair DREME Foundation for Science Literacy,

McNair Scholars Program,

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Biographical Data Ronald E. McNair (PhD.),

 “Nichelle Nichols: Star Trek Actress & NASA Recruiter,” MAKERS Profile,

“Women, Blacks Join Astronaut Corps,” Science News 113 no. 3 (Jan. 21 1978): 36.

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