Science, Inventions, Medicine, and Aerospace


Who was Ronald McNair?

On January 20, 1986, Ronald McNair (1950–1986) was the first black astronaut killed during a space mission, when the space shuttle Challenger met disaster, exploding shortly after liftoff. He was also the nation’s second black astronaut to travel in space. McNair was born in Lake City, South Carolina, and was able to read and write by age three. He received his bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro in 1971 and received a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he received his doctorate magna cum laude in 1976. McNair then joined Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, as a researcher. He joined the space program on invitation from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1978. McNair completed training and evaluation as a shuttle mission specialist and then worked at the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. He made three space flights in 1984. While these were rather routine flights, the mission flight scheduled for January 28, 1986, was a high-profile event—it would carry the first private citizen into space, teacher Christa McAuliffe. McNair was mission specialist. As millions of television viewers watched the rocket bearing the shuttle liftoff at 11:38 A.M. and climb nearly nine miles, a sudden explosion seventy-three seconds later killed all seven on board, devastated witnesses, and challenged the U.S. space program. Later, Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the O-rings used in the shuttle, was charged with negligence for knowingly using a defective design and failing to advise astronauts of the problem.


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