South Carolina, 1959. A nine-year old Black boy sat on a library counter refusing to leave until the librarian gave him his books. He did not care that the librarian had called the police. He was not phased that during this time in history, places of learning were staunchly segregated. He was unwavering as the police came marching in, confident that the knowledge he sought was rightfully his. And with courage and pride, Ronald E. McNair left the library unscathed with his books in hand, and his mother and brother by his side. Decades later, the Lake City Library would become the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center.
Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair was born in 1950 in a low-income community in South Carolina. In 1971, he graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics. He then enrolled in Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At first, McNair was afraid to pursue physics at the graduate level, for fear he could not compete. However he persisted through his trepidation and in 1976, at the age of 26, he graduated with honors and earned his PhD degree in LASER Physics.
Dr. McNair soon became a recognized expert in LASER Physics while working as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory. In 1978, NASA picked 35 new astronauts from 8,000 applicants. Among them were McNair and two other African Americans including Col. Guion Bluford, who in 1983 became the first African American to travel into space. In 1984 McNair was Mission Specialist aboard the flight of the Space Shuttle, Challenger making him the second African-American to fly to space. McNair and the four other crew members logged 191 hours in space on the eight-day mission. Challenger made 128 orbits of the Earth on that trip.
For his achievements, Ronald E. McNair received three honorary doctorate degrees and many fellowships and commendations. These distinctions include: Presidential Scholar, 1967-71; Ford Foundation Fellow, 1971-74; National Fellowship Fund Fellow, 1974-75; Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year, 1975; Distinguished National Scientist, National Society of Black Professional Engineers, 1979; and the Friend of Freedom Award, 1981. Ronald E. McNair also held a fifth degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist. He was married and was the dedicated father of a daughter and son.