The Astronomical Grit Of Ronald McNair


There is more than one way to lead a successful life. Some people have all the opportunity in the world laid out before them, and it never does them any good. Others have little more than the determination and desire they’ve dredged up within themselves, and that grit turns out to be the abrasive that smooths the path ahead.

Ronald McNair succeeded despite poverty, racism, and an education system designed to keep Black people down. He became an accidental revolutionary at the age of nine, when he broke the color barrier in his small South Carolina town via the public library. This act of defiance in pursuit of education would set the course for his relatively short but full life, which culminated in his career as a Space Shuttle mission specialist.

Rule-Breaker with a Slide Rule

Ronald McNair was born October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, the second of three sons, to Pearl and Carl McNair. His mother was a teacher, and encouraged his love of reading. Ronald’s father, Carl was an auto mechanic who never finished high school and always regretted it. Though the family was poor, Ron grew up surrounded by books, music, and support.

Ronald learned to read by the time he was three years old, and his father forged his birth certificate so he could start school at age four. From a young age, he was obsessed with science fiction, space, and Sputnik in particular. Even though the house was filled with books, there was one book that Ron didn’t have: the one that told him much more about his prized slide rule than the pamphlet that came with it.

The original Lake City library building, now known as the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. Image via ArtFields

In the summer of 1959 he located the book in the Lake City public library. There was only one problem: the library was segregated, and he wasn’t allowed check it out. Nine-year-old Ron didn’t abide, so he simply refused to leave the library until they let him check out his stack of books. First the librarians called the cops, and then they called his mother.

Pearl McNair arrived to find her son sitting on the checkout counter, his little legs dangling down the side. Since he wasn’t causing any real trouble, she proudly stood by her son in the matter, telling the librarians that they ought to just let him check out the books. From that day on, Ron could check out books whenever he wanted.

Ronald was determined in every aspect of his life, and his well-rounded personality is like something out of fiction. Throughout school, he was serious about his studies to the point of being competitive. Ron competed with his friends for the best grades, and won most of the time. In high school, Ron played baseball, football, basketball, and ran track. He also excelled in music, starting on the clarinet and settling on the saxophone. In spite of all these talents and obligations, Ron still found time to be social and was well-liked. To the surprise of probably no one, Ron graduated as class valedictorian.

Ron in the MIT physics lab. Image via Oxford American

A Laser Focus

Lake City stood firmly in the segregated South, but inequality wasn’t something Ron focused on. Still, it affected him. He couldn’t just apply to whatever college he wanted, no matter how good his grades were. And even though Ron had excellent and supportive high school teachers, the “separate but equal” doctrine meant that his education was not as robust or varied as that of white students.

After high school, Ron got a scholarship to the closest college that offered physics to Black students — North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. He entered as a music major, but after speaking with a guidance counselor, he switched to physics.

Ronald had to work particularly hard because of the gaps in his underfunded education. But he still found time to be well-rounded. Freshman year he started learning Tae Kwon Do, eventually becoming a fifth-degree black belt and a teacher.

Ron went to MIT for two semesters as part of an exchange program that was designed to get students of color to pursue the sciences. Once he earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from North Carolina A&T, Ronald returned to MIT for his graduate degree. He had to study harder than ever, and confront racism head on at the same time. Ron had a couple of bad experiences in Cambridge. Once he was pursued by a group of men and jumped by one of them. Another time, someone sicced their dog on him.

Ron the martial artist. Image via Oxford American

The Physics of Tae Kwon Do

At MIT, Ron focused his doctoral thesis on laser physics. He helped make some of the first chemical and high-pressure carbon dioxide lasers in the MIT physics lab. He failed his first attempt at the five-hour long PhD exam. Then, he lost a notebook with two years of notes in it. He had to redo all of his lab work, but ended up with even better notes the second time and passed the exam.

Around the time he co-wrote an article for Scientific American about the physics of tae kwon do (PDF), Ron met his future wife, Cheryl at a church potluck, and they got married after graduation. Ron got a job as a staff physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories, a center for advanced laser research in Malibu, California. One of his duties was laser research for communication between satellites.

The following year, Ron got a targeted brochure in the mail from NASA, who were looking for mission specialist candidates. He gleefully applied, encouraged by Cheryl. Ron and 34 other people were accepted from a pool of 10,000 applicants.

Space Saxophonist

Ron spent six years in astronaut training before his first mission on the Space Shuttle Challenger. In the meantime, he and Cheryl had two children, Reginald and Joy. At the end of his training, Ron was assigned to the Shuttle’s fourth mission, STS-41-B, which launched on February 3rd, 1984. The mission included the first-ever spacewalk, and Ron made history as the second African-American in space.

The mission’s main objectives were putting a pair of satellites into orbit and testing new equipment. For his part, Ron was assigned to do experiments with solar cells and pneumatic conveyors, operate a gas spectrometer focused on the orbiter, and use the remote sensing camera to take pictures of Earth. He was also in charge of operating the new 50-foot mechanical arm that was designed to snatch satellites and bring them in for repair. Ron had another, secret objective: playing the saxophone in space. In the months leading up to liftoff, he had several discussions with a music store owner to research how space jazz might work. He sneaked a soprano saxophone on board and blew a solo rendition of “What the World Needs Now is Love”. As far as anyone knows, Ron McNair was the first person to play a saxophone in space.

Ron experiments with space jazz. Image via MIT

Ron received quite the reception when he returned to Lake City. There were celebrations, parades, and a street renaming in his honor. Most notably, Ron’s boot prints were set in concrete at a park that once forbade Black people. He gave talks at MIT and elsewhere, always making sure that young students, especially of color, were invited to them.

Two years later, Ron was scheduled to return to space on the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986. He was planning to record a sax solo for a Jean-Michel Jarre album on the shuttle, having proven the viability of the instrument away from Earth. He lost his life along with six other crew members when the shuttle broke apart during launch the morning of January 28th, 1986.

Since the tragedy, many buildings and schools have been named in the honor of the seven men and women whose lives were cut short that cold January morning. MIT dedicated the building that houses the Center for Space Research after Ron. In 2011, the Lake City library was rebuilt, and the original building was turned into the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. Anywhere a kid can be found trying to rise above their circumstances, Ron’s spirit lives on.

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