Ronald E. McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. McNair achieved early success in the segregated public school system as valedictorian of his high school class. After earning a B.S. in physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1977, where he specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology. During this time, McNair married Cheryl B. Moore, and they later had two children.
As a student, McNair performed some of the earliest work on chemical HF/DF and high-pressure CO lasers, publishing pathbreaking scientific papers on the subject. After completing his Ph.D., he began working as a physicist at the Optical Physics Department of Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, and conducted research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications.
This research led McNair into close contact with the space program and an opportunity presented itself for him to apply for astronaut training. In January 1978, NASA selected him to enter the astronaut cadre, making him one of the first three African Americans selected. In 1984, McNair became the 2nd African American in space by flying in the Challenger Shuttle mission STS-41B. In 1986, McNair was selected for his second shuttle mission as one of three Mission Specialists on the fated STS-51-L mission.
McNair’s widow, Cheryl McNair, was a Founding Director of Challenger Center and continues to serve on the Advisory Council.