Ronald E. McNair was the second of three mission specialists aboard Challenger. Born on October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, McNair was the son of Carl C. McNair, Sr., and Pearl M. McNair. He achieved early success in the segregated public schools he attended as both a student and an athlete. Valedictorian of his high school class, he attended North Carolina A&T State University where he received a B.S. degree in physics in 1971. He went on to study physics at MIT, where he specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology, completing his Ph.D. in 1977. As a student, he performed some of the earliest work on chemical HF/DF and high pressure CO lasers, publishing path-breaking 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 for the first time, and when the opportunity presented itself, he applied for astronaut training. In January 1978, NASA selected him to enter the astronaut cadre, one of the first three Black Americans selected. McNair became the second Black American in space between February 3 and 11, 1984, by flying on the Challenger Shuttle mission STS-41-B. During this mission, McNair operated the maneuverable arm built by Canada used to move payloads in space. The 1986 mission on which he was killed was his second Shuttle flight.
The McNair Program was authorized by Congress in 1986 to honor Ronald McNair’s legacy. However, the first national grant competition was not held until 1989.