Ronald McNair (1950 – 1986) NASA Astronaut, Physicist, Martial Artist, Saxophonist, 2nd African American to travel to Space

“Before you can make a dream come true, you must first have one,” profound words spoken by astronaut, physicist, martial artist, and saxophonist, Ronald McNair. He was the 2nd African American to travel to Space and was a 5th degree black belt Karate instructor, as well as, a performing jazz saxophonist. He also enjoyed running, boxing, football, playing cards, and cooking.

Ronald Erwin McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina, to Carl C. McNair, a mechanic and Pearl McNair, a teacher. He had two brothers, Carl and Eric A. McNair. At an young age he earned the nickname “Gizmo,” for his aptitude for solving technical matters.

Ronald’s interest in space was sparked by the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957, and nurtured by the appearance of Star Trek on TV years later. Its multi-ethnic cast crossed the boundaries and open the horizon for what was possible for an young African American child growing up in the segregated south.

As an all-around student and athlete at Carver High School, Ronald starred in baseball, basketball and football and played saxophone for the school band. In 1967, he graduated as valedictorian, earning a scholarship to attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, North Carolina.

After initially considering majoring in music, he eventually came back around to his love for science, graduating magna cum laude with a B.S. in physics in 1971. In 1976, he received a Ph.D. degree in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, becoming nationally recognized for his work in the field of laser physics. After graduation from MIT (receiving four honorary doctorates, as well as a score of fellowships and commendations), he became a staff physicist at the Hughes Research Lab in Malibu, California. He was an expert in the fields of chemical and high-pressure lasers and focused on the development of lasers for isotope separation, conducting research on electro-optic modulation for satellite space communications. 

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 (about 5 months after Guion S. Bluford).

Ronald, who played saxophone during high school and college, maintained his love for the instrument throughout his life. He was famously photographed playing his sax during his first mission to space in 1984. Additionally, the accomplished physicist and astronaut was highly skilled in karate. He won the 1976 AAU Karate Gold Medal and five regional championships, eventually achieving the rank of fifth-degree black belt.

Following the STS-41-B mission, Ronald 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 Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds after liftoff. The disintegration also killed six other crew members.

Ronald McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004, along with all crew members lost in the Challenger disaster. Numerous public places, programs, and proclamations have been named in honor of Ronald McNair. He was a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and a member of the Bahá’í Faith.


  • Graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T (1971);
  • named a Presidential Scholar (1967-1971),
  • a Ford Foundation Fellow (1971-1974)
  • a National Fellowship Fund Fellow (1974-1975)
  • a NATO Fellow (1975);
  • winner of Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year Award (1975)
  • Los Angeles Public School System’s Service Commendation
  • Distinguished Alumni Award (1979),
  • National Society of Black Professional Engineers Distinguished National
    Scientist Award (1979),
  • Friend of Freedom Award (1981),
  • Who’s Who Among Black Americans (1980),
  • an AAU Karate
    Gold Medal (1976),
  • five Regional Blackbelt Karate Championships
  • Dr. Ronald E. McNair memorial in his hometown, Lake City, South Carolina
  • Dr. Ronald E. McNair tomb in his hometown, Lake City, South Carolina
  • Ronald McNair Park in Brooklyn, New York City
  • Ronald E. McNair South Central Police Station of the Houston Police Department in Houston, Texas.
  • The crater McNair on the Moon is named in his honor.
  • The McNair Building at MIT (a.k.a. Building 37), his alma mater, houses the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.
  • The McNair Science Center at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina.
  • The McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research at the University of South Carolina is named in his honor.
  • Watson Chapel Jr. High was renamed the R. McNair Jr. High School in his honor.
  • Ronald McNair Boulevard in Lake City, South Carolina, is named in his honor and lies near other streets named for astronauts who perished in the Challenger crash.
  • The U.S. Department of Education offers the TRIO Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program for students with low income, first generation students, and/or underrepresented students in graduate education for doctorate education.
  • On January 29, 2011, the Lake City, South Carolina, library was dedicated as the Ronald McNair Life History Center. 
  • Several K-12 schools have also been named after McNair.
    • McNair Memorial Park in El Lago, Texas, is named in his honor.
    • Ronald E. McNair Middle School in Lake City, South Carolina, was renamed from Carver High School in his honor (he was a high school graduate of the facility).
    • Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, New Jersey
    • Ronald McNair Elementary School in Greensboro, North Carolina
    • Ronald McNair Elementary School in Germantown, Maryland
    • Ronald E. McNair Prince Hall Masonic Lodge No. 146 is named in his honor in Suitland, Maryland
    • Dr. Ronald E. McNair High School in DeKalb County, Georgia, near Decatur
    • Ronald E. McNair Middle School, San Antonio, Texas – Southwest ISD
    • Ronald McNair Middle School in DeKalb County, Georgia, near Decatur
    • Ronald McNair Middle School in College Park, Georgia
    • Ronald E. McNair Administrative Center in University City, Missouri
    • Ronald E. McNair Elementary School in Hazelwood, Missouri
    • Ronald Ervin McNair Elementary School in Denton, Texas 
    • Ronald McNair Middle School in Rockledge, Florida
    • Ronald E. McNair Elementary School in Dallas, Texas
    • Ronald E. McNair Academic Center in Chicago, Illinois
    • Ronald E. McNair Junior High School in Huntsville, Alabama
    • Los Robles Ronald McNair Academy in East Palo Alto, California
    • Ronald E. McNair High School in Stockton, California
    • PS 5, Dr. Ronald McNair School in Brooklyn, New York
    • PS/MS 147 Ronald McNair in Cambria Heights Queens, New York
    • McNair Elementary School in Compton, California.
    • McNair Community School (Upper & Lower) in Fairfax County, Virginia
    • Ronald E. McNair Building: Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, New Orleans, Louisiana
    • Ronald E. McNair Building: KIPP Believe College Prep. New Orleans, Louisiana
  • A building on the Willowridge High School campus in Houston, Texas, is named in honor of McNair.
  • Dr. Ronald McNair Junior High School in Pearland, Texas (Alvin Independent School District), is named in honor Dr. McNair.
  • There is a memorial in the Ronald McNair Park in Brooklyn, New York, in his honor.
  • The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Playground in East Harlem, New York City, is named after him.
  • The Ronald E. McNair Space Theater inside the Davis Planetarium in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, is named in his honor.
  • The Naval ROTC building on the campus of Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is named in his honor.
  • Ronald E. McNair Hall, On the campus of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina
  • The Engineering building at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, NC, is named in his honor. The university holds a “McNair Day” celebration annually.
  • McNair was portrayed by Joe Morton in the 1990 TV movie Challenger.
  • 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.


“Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them.  You’re eagles! Stretch your wings and fly to the sky.”

“Before you can make a dream come true, you must first have one.”

“A tear-drop of green. Ronald McNair.”

“The true courage of space flight is not sitting aboard 6 million pounds of fire and thunder as one rockets away from this planet. True courage comes in enduring, persevering, the preparation and believing in oneself.”



Recreate Model: Blake E. Odum

Recreate Photographer: Jasmine Mallory

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