UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls

Who Was Ronald E. McNair?

McNair Scholars Program

In 1989 the U.S. Congress funded a Department of Education TRIO program in commemoration of Ronald E. McNair, an African-American laser physicist and astronaut killed in the Challenger explosion.

Ronald Erwin McNair was born Oct. 21, 1950, in Lake City, S.C. While a junior in high school, McNair was inspired to work-hard and persevere in his studies because of his family and by a teacher who believed in him and recognized his scientific potential. McNair graduated as valedictorian from Carver High School in 1967. In 1971, he graduated Magna Cum Laude and received a Bachelor of Science Degree in physics from North Carolina A&T State University. McNair then enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned his Ph.D. in 1978 in laser physics. His dissertation was titled Energy Absorption and Vibrational Heating in Molecules Following Intense Laser Excitation. McNair was presented an Honorary Doctorate of Law from North Carolina A&T State University in 1978, an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Morris College in 1980 and an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of South Carolina in 1984. 

While working as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory, McNair soon became a recognized expert in laser physics. His many distinctions include being a Presidential Scholar (1971-74), a Ford Foundation Fellow (1971-74), a National Fellowship Fund Fellow (1974-75) and a NATO Fellow (1975). He was also a sixth degree black belt in karate and an accomplished saxophonist. Because of his many accomplishments, he was selected by NASA for the space shuttle program in 1978. His first space shuttle mission launched successfully from Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 3, 1984. McNair was the second African-American to fly in space. Two years later he was selected to serve as mission specialist aboard the ill-fated U.S. Challenger space shuttle on Jan. 28, 1986. McNair was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. After his death, Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. The goal of the program is to encourage First-Generation students from Low-Income backgrounds or members of a group that are traditionally underrepresented to pursue doctoral studies. This program is dedicated to the high-standards of achievement inspired by Dr. Ronald E. McNair.

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"Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them." 
            -Ronald E. McNair-