Ronald Erwin McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina to Carl and Pearl McNair. He attended North Carolina A&T State University where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. degree in physics in 1971. McNair then enrolled in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1976 at the age of 25, he earned his PhD in physics.
He soon became a recognized expert in laser physics while working as staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory. NASA selected McNair for the space shuttle program in 1978 and assigned him as mission specialist aboard the 1984 fight of the shuttle Challenger.
Besides his academic achievements, McNair received three honorary doctorate degrees and many fellowships and commendations. These included Presidential Scholar, 1967-71; Ford Foundation Fellow, 1971-74; National Fellowship Fund Fellow, 1974-75; named 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; as well as many others. McNair also held a fifth degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist. He was married and had a son and daughter.
After his death in the Challenger space shuttle accident in January 1986, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. The goal of this effort is to encourage minority students and students whose parents do not have college degrees to enroll in graduate studies. This program is dedicated to the high standard of achievement Ronald E. McNair’s life represented.