Dr. Ronald E. McNair
Challenger Astronaut Ronald E. McNair's Legacy Honored
25 Years After Explosion, the Racial Barrier Pushing African-American Physicist Is Honored in his Hometown
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By ALICIA TEJADA
Jan. 29, 2011
Twenty five years ago the nation watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the air, creating a massive fireball just 73 seconds after launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The tragedy shook the entire world and prompted NASA to evaluate its shuttle program and review the future of space travel.
All seven astronauts on board were killed. Among the crew members was Ronald E. McNair.
A physicist recognized nationally for his work in the field of laser physics who was also notable for being the second African American to fly in space, McNair broke barriers since his childhood in the small community of Lake City, South Carolina. He grew up in the farming town that's located about 90 miles north of Charleston.
"We all knew he was exceptional, but we didn't really know how exceptional until later," said Clyde Bess, who attended the same segregated black high school as McNair.
In 1959, when McNair was just 9 years old, he famously made a scene at the Lake City Public Library. Residents stared the African American boy down and watched as he walked to the main counter and attempted to check out books on advanced science and calculus.
The librarian refused to release them and told him, "We don't circulate books to Negroes."
The passionate young man wouldn't budge, and instead hoisted himself onto the counter and said he wasn't leaving without the books. Library patrons laughed as McNair's feet dangled off the counter while he waited and the librarian called police.
Two police officers arrived at the scene along with McNair's mother, Pearl. They determined the boy was not causing any public disturbance and Pearl convinced the librarian she'd pay for the books if they were not returned. The librarian gave in.
Today, more than 20 schools around the country, several monuments, and the main highway through the town of Lake City are named after Ronald McNair.
"To come from a place that was that tiny, that was that poverty stricken and to still have achieved -- the sky's the limit. You do not let your social surroundings hold you back," said Verlie Tisdale, a high school classmate and now dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Clafin University.
McNair's legacy is now being honored in a weeklong celebration which includes a parade, candlelit vigil, and banquet. Perhaps the most important of this week's events was the opening of the building where over a half a century ago a brave nine year old boy refused to leave without checking out books.
The Lake City Public Library building has been restored and introduced on Saturday as the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. The construction crew even worked over Martin Luther King Jr. Day just to make up for time lost due to weather interruptions.
"We normally don't work on a holiday, but at the same time the building is supposed to be done," said Jason Morse, the job superintendent.
The former library is equipped for community gatherings and classroom visits, and the center's walls feature highlights from McNair's life in Lake City and career with NASA. The newly designed building also includes an amphitheater and is adjacent to a middle school and a park already named after the astronaut.
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[scene opens with a male news anchor speaking directly to the camera, with an inset graphic showing deceased astronaut Ronald E. McNair with the caption "Act of Bravery"]
ANCHOR: In a small South Carolina town, a tribute after a daring act by a native son. Astronaut Ron McNair died onboard the space shuttle Challenger when it exploded twenty five years ago this week, but this tribute is not for his courage in space, but for an act of bravery when he was just a boy. Here's Steve Osunsami.
[cut to old footage of Ronald E. McNair playing the saxophone]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] For all of Ron McNair's accomplishments ...
[cut to footage of McNair performing karate]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] His black belt ...
[cut to footage of McNair in a science lab]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] His PhD from MIT ...
[cut to footage of McNair above the space shuttle floating in zero gravity]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] His first trip to space in Nineteen Eighty Four ...
[cut to footage of members of the Challenger mission boarding the shuttle]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] And the assignment that took his life ...
[cut to footage of the Challenger explosion]
NASA EMPLOYEE: We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded.
[cut to footage from the opening of the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] At his home in Lake City, South Carolina today, he was remembered for a courageous stand he took when he was just nine years old.
[cut to a black-and-white photograph of McNair as a young boy, then to his brother Carl at the History Center]
CARL MCNAIR: He just liked science. He just liked math.
[cut to footage from the Lake City Public Library building]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] Ron McNair sat on a counter in this library demanding that the librarians let him check out books on science and advanced calculus.
[cut to stock footage of a "coloreds only" drinking fountain]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] It was the segregated South of Nineteen Fifty Nine, and black children were not allowed to leave here with books ...
[cut to an elderly African-American Man ("T.R. Cooper, fmr. principal, Carver Elementary School") speaking directly to the camera]
T.R. COOPER: He stayed there until he got that book. That's what he did.
[cut back to the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] Today his grateful hometown renamed the library the Doctor Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. His family was there, including the son who was just three years old when his father died in the Challenger explosion.
[cut to Reginald McNair speaking directly to the camera]
REGINALD MCNAIR: Coming back to Lake City, y'know, where he was born and raised ... And from what he did, I mean, it's just remarkable. It's amazing.
[cut to Ron McNair's widow speaking directly to the camera]
CHERYL MCNAIR: That's what I see in this room, when I walked in, I felt "Oh Ron, look at what they've done!" You know, if you were just here to see what your life has meant.
[cut to more stock footage of McNair boarding the shuttle]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] He once said that it was part of man's nature to explore.
[cut to stock footage of McNair speaking directly to the camera]
RONALD MCNAIR: As far as you can, as deep as you can, into the unknown.
[cut to more footage of the Ronald E. McNair Life History Center]
STEVE OSUNSAMI: [in voice over] Today they remember him for his curiosity and for his courage. Steve Osunsami, ABC News, Atlanta.
Astronaut's Brother Recalls A Man Who Dreamed Big
by NPR Staff
January 28, 2011
Ronald McNair was one of the astronauts killed 25 years ago on Jan. 28, when the space shuttle exploded. As his brother recalls, McNair's life was all about exploring boundaries - and exceeding them.
McNair was only the second African-American to visit space. He'd been there , aboard a Challenger mission in 1984. On that trip, he played his saxophone while in orbit.
As his older brother, Carl, recalls, McNair started dreaming about space in South Carolina, where he grew up. And he wanted to study science. But first, he needed to get his hands on some advanced books. And that was a problem.
"When he was 9 years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library," Carl tells his friend Vernon Skipper.
The library was public, Carl says - "but not so public for black folks, when you're talking about 1959."
"So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him - because they were white folk only - and they were looking at him and saying, you know, 'Who is this Negro?'
"So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books.
"Well, this old librarian, she says, 'This library is not for coloreds.' He said, 'Well, I would like to check out these books.'
"She says, 'Young man, if you don't leave this library right now, I'm gonna call the police.'
"So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, 'I'll wait.' "
The librarian called the police - and McNair's mother, Pearl.
When the police got to the library, Carl says, "Two burly guys come in and say, 'Well, where's the disturbance?'
"And she pointed to the little 9-year-old boy sitting up on the counter.
"And he [the policeman] says, 'Ma'am, what's the problem?'
By then, the boys' mother was on her way, Carl says.
"She comes down there praying the whole way there: 'Lordy, Jesus, please don't let them put my child in jail.' And my mother asks the librarian, 'What's the problem?' "
"He wanted to check out the books and, you know, your son shouldn't be down here," the librarian said, according to Carl.
"And the police officer said, 'You know, why don't you just give the kid the books?'
"And my mother said, 'He'll take good care of them.' "
So, the librarian reluctantly handed over the books. And then, Carl says, "my mother said, 'What do you say?' "
And Ron answered, "Thank you, ma'am."
Eventually, Ronald McNair graduated from . And in 1976, he earned a Ph.D. from MIT, in physics. Soon after that, he applied to join NASA's astronaut program.
For Carl McNair, watching his brother's career was like seeing something from the TV shows of his youth.
"As youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek," he says. "Now, Star Trek showed the future - where there were black folk and white folk working together."
And back in the 1960s, that premise didn't seem believable, Carl says.
"I just looked at it as science fiction, 'cause that wasn't going to happen, really," he says. "But Ronald saw it as science possibility."
In that era, NASA's astronauts were celebrities - people like Neil Armstrong.
"So how was a colored boy from South Carolina - wearing glasses, never flew a plane - how was he gonna become an astronaut?" Carl says.
"But Ron was one who didn't accept societal norms as being his norm, you know? That was for other people. And he got to be aboard his own Starship Enterprise."
Ronald McNair was 35 at the time of the Challenger tragedy. To mark the anniversary of his death, a ceremony will be held in Lake City on Friday, in which the building that housed McNair's childhood library will be.
The list of people whose lives McNair touched includes. Like McNair, Bolden grew up in South Carolina, pursued a career in science and became an astronaut. Bolden is now the administrator of NASA.