It was his second voyage, and the short arc of his career, a flight of determination that took him from the cotton fields to college, to a doctoral degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to research in laser physics and finally to the space program. It began here.
Two years ago this month, on the Challenger, the ship he was to die in, he revolved around the earth above the stubbled, wintry fields he had picked as a boy, the schools he'd attended, the family he loved. They were what shaped him.
''I gained qualities in that cotton field,'' he said in an interview once. ''I got tough. I learned to endure. I refuse to quit.'' It was the same attitude that saw his friend Joe Wilson through the Yale University Law School and his friend Toney Graham through Columbia University Medical School.
Central to the experience of each were the McNair family and the black schools around Lake City. An Early Push From Father It was in his grandfather's house on Moore Street in Lake City, an unpainted, weatherbeaten old frame house, that Ron McNair and his brothers, Carl and Eric, were raised. His mother, Pearl, was a teacher in the black schools, committed to education, church and family. His aunt, Lela M. Austin, was a teacher. His father, Carl, was an automobile mechanic who regretted not having finished high school and pushed the boys he coached in baseball to stay in school, study and do well. It was Carl McNair's father's house. ''Mr. McNair's father was Bishop McNair of the Church of God movement,'' Mrs. Austin said, ''and there was a church right in the yard.''
It was a big yard, full of neighborhood children playing. Bishop McNair was dead but his church lived, and on Sundays the boys slipped in, thrilling to the music and the preaching.
Dr. McNair's grandmother, Mabel Montgomery, is now 80 years old, ill and infirm, still living at home with her husband, who has slipped into the dazed state of advanced hardening of the arteries. But she is keen, and she was in her house, watching the launching of the Challenger, when it exploded. Mrs. Austin, fearful about her mother, rushed in and Mrs. Montgomery looked up at her in resignation. ''The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh,'' she said.
''And then she got up and started receiving visitors,'' Mrs. Austin said.
Ron McNair's great-grandmother cared for the boys by day before they were of school age, and in that family, instruction began early. ''My grandmother always said she couldn't write,'' Mrs. Austin said. ''But she taught them to read. There was some time for playing, but then it was time to get out the books.''
When he was 3 years old, Ron McNair was reading words. By the time he was 4, his family ''said he was too smart to stay home, but they wouldn't take him in the city school,'' said Irene Jones, a family friend who, like Pearl McNair and Lela Austin, was a teacher and a graduate of a college for blacks.
''We took him out to a principal we knew'' at the Camerontown Elementary School, which was for rural black children outside of town. ''We'll let him in,'' said Idell Singletary, the principal.
The next year, when he was 5, Ron McNair was transferred to the black elementary school in town and Mrs. Jones was his teacher. ''His pencil was behind his ear always,'' she said. ''He carried his notebook in the same position at his side always. I'd never seen a little child do that.''
Grade by grade, Ron McNair made the same impression. ''That was at a time when the term 'gifted' was not in general use, but gifted he was,'' said T. R. Cooper, who was the principal of the black elementary school then and is now principal of the integrated elementary school on Main Street.
Ron and his brother Carl, who is a year older, were in the same grade and were inseparable. The McNairs bought the World Book Encyclopedia and on Saturday mornings Ron and Carl, and later Eric, spent hours with the encyclopedia.
The old house held an air of determination. ''It leaked so bad in his room that the room fell in,'' said George Simmons, who grew up in the neighborhood. ''Ron was going to stay and clean it up. And his mother said: 'No, son. We're going to school. We'll worry about that when we get back.' ''
It was a commitment to achievement, a battle to instill a sense of expectation, and foreign to the larger culture of the time. Ronald Erwin McNair was born here Oct. 21, 1950, and the small towns of South Carolina, where the Ku Klux Klan was active as he grew up in the 1950's and 1960's, were not places to encourage black aspirations.
Mr. Wilson, now the Chief Deputy Attorney General of South Carolina, remembers waking at night as a boy in terror to the sound of shots fired into Walter Scott's house down the street. ''He was out front in the little Voters' League they were trying to create there,'' Mr. Wilson said. It was those pressures that the McNairs and the black schools labored against to instill a sense of striving in their children.
Ron McNair's father left home more than 20 years ago for East Harlem in New York City, but he returned every summer and sometimes at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In summer he coached the boys' baseball teams from the adjacent Moore Street and Veterans Quarters neighborhoods. Joe Wilson pitched, and Ron McNair played second base. Mr. McNair ''was very good at coaching young people, at teaching us how to play baseball and counseling us,'' Mr. Wilson said. ''Some of the kids wouldn't go to school all the time, and he'd be on them about that.''
Even though the parents were separated most of the time, Mrs. Austin said, ''when decisions had to be made, they always conferred with each other about their children.'' She went on, ''And the boys, whenever they were going to do anything, they talked it over with Dad.''
The direction at home was repeated in the schools. ''In those years, we were black and we had to be better than good to measure up,'' Mrs. Austin said. ''Teachers were tough. You didn't come to school and say you didn't have your work.''
Ron McNair was valedictorian of his high school class, a star in baseball, basketball and football, and a talented saxophonist in the school band. Science and music were his strongest interests. His aunt, who had helped Joe Wilson and Toney Graham choose schools and apply for scholarships, helped Ron to get a scholarship to North Carolina A.&T., which had been established as the Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race.
''The scholarship that Ron had in his second, third and fourth years is very interesting,'' said Tom Sandin, a professor of physics and Ron McNair's faculty adviser at North Carolina A.&T. ''It was from the State of South Carolina, and it was given to any black student who would go out of state.'' In that period, 1967 to 1971, he said, ''it was their way of keeping blacks out'' of South Carolina state colleges.
Ron McNair started to major in music. Uncertain which path to take, he sought the help of a college counselor who gave him aptitude tests and told him he had what it took for engineering school. He chose science. He earned pocket money playing his sax in a rhythm and blues band at campus clubs and high school dances. He began studying karate. ''He loved the competition, the grace of it,'' said Keenan Sarratt, his roommate from a farm near Gaffney, S.C.
Tom Sandin, a professor of physics at North Carolina A.T.&T. and Ron McNair's faculty adviser, encouraged the student to join an exchange program the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was offering to bright young black engineering students for a semester.
Ron McNair was about to graduate magna cum laude from North Carolina A.&T. and Professor Sandin wrote him a recommendation to M.I.T. - not something he did lightly. ''The change from the essentially all-black atmosphere at A.&T. to the essentially all-white atmosphere at M.I.T., plus the added pressures, were not something we wanted to just throw our students into,'' he said. Grandmother Graduated, Too Ron McNair was admitted to M.I.T.'s doctoral program in physics and won a Ford Foundation fellowship for black graduate students. His and Carl's graduation from North Carolina that June was part of a family triumph: Eric McNair, one of Mrs. Austin's daughters and their grandmother, Mrs. Montgomery, all graduated from high school in Lake City the same month. Mrs. Montgomery wanted that diploma. She was 65.
Professor Sandin's concerns about the long academic leap to M.I.T. were not unfounded. ''It was clear that his background was quite deficient,'' says Michael Feld, professor of physics and his thesis adviser. ''But he really did well. He worked very, very hard.''
The Rev. Dr. LeRoy Attles was pastor of St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church where Ron McNair attended services and founded a karate school for church youngsters. At church services he met Cheryl Moore of Jamaica, Queens. She was attractive, unassuming, like him, and quietly strong. They were married in that church. Ron McNair received his doctorate in 1976, about the same time he received a notice about the space shuttle astronaut program in tne mail. ''He came by the office, and said, 'I really think I can do this thing,'' recalled Dr. Clarence C. Williams, then an assistant dean for minority students.
The McNairs moved to Los Angeles, near the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, where Dr. McNair became a staff physicist. In January 1978, he was selected as an astronaut. The couple moved to Houston, the headquarters of the Johnson Space Center, attended the Antioch Baptist Church and had a son, Reginald Ervin.
Ron McNair orbited the earth 122 times aboard the Challenger in February 1984. Always, before and after the mission, he kept in touch with his family, calling up his mother or his aunts in Lake or his brothers in Atlanta. And these last two years, especially after he and Cheryl had a daughter, Joy Cheray, in July 1984, they talked of where they wanted to rear the children.
He urged the Massachusetts and South Carolina legislatures to give adequate money to poor and inner-city schools. He was showered with honorary degrees and other tributes. Whenever he was asked to give a speech, he asked in return that someone arrange a visit for him to local schools. 'Better Than Good Enough' At the summer commencement ceremony at the University of South Carolina in 1984, he challenged the students to believe in themselves: ''You're better than good enough. You may not come from a well-to-do financial background, you may not come from an affluent social background, you may not have glided through the University of South Carolina with the greatest of ease. But if you're willing to work hard, sacrifice and struggle, then I proclaim today that you're better than good enough.''
Last December, as his second Challenge mission drew near. Dr. McNair went to Columbia, S.C., and spoke for four hours with J. David Waugh, dean of the Engineering School at the University of South Carolina, about taking a position there. They had three more conversations in January.
''He wanted to return to South Carolina to rear his children,'' the dean said. Dr. McNair told Mr. Waugh that the McNairs ''had talked about it extensively, and they both felt this was something they wanted to do.''
The dean expected him to begin this summer. ''Although he never quite said it,'' Mr. Waugh said, Dr. McNair made it clear ''that blacks don't grow up and prosper and move away - they go away and prosper and come back.
''He was going to make that statement -that you don't have to make the exodus.''
On Jan. 28, as his family watched at Cape Canaveral and at home on television, as an old college friend in Murray Hill, N.J., was on the telephone lining up a visit to the local schools for Dr. McNair, the Challenger exploded.
For those who knew Dr. Ronald E. McNair, there was the feeling that they and black America had lost a special angel. ''Dad,'' said one of Professor Feld's sons, a college senior, ''he's gone back to heaven.''Continue reading the main story
LSU University College's Ronald E. McNair Research Scholars program promotes a new cohort of scholars that more accurately reflects the emergent diversity in life experiences, cultures and perspectives represented in academia by preparing students who are first-generation, low-income, and ethnically underrepresented in graduate education for doctoral studies. We connect undergraduate students with faculty-directed research experiences, provide individualized advisement, and foster knowledge of the graduate school application process. Funded by a federal grant from the US Department of Education TRIO programs, McNair Research Scholars conduct research under the mentorship of some of the most distinguished faculty in the country and communicate the results of their work through publications and workshops.