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Major Tom Ronnie? If the STS-51-L space mission had gone to plan, Ronald McNair would have celebrated his seventh decade of life yesterday. However, fate is fickle and Ronnie never even got to see his fourth decade. What should’ve been one of the proudest and most exciting events of his life combusted in a mere 73 seconds as the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean.
But before he boarded the space shuttle on that fateful late January day, Ronnie used to get himself psyched up for ‘sploring space by hitting shuffle on his out-of-this-world playlist. As we meander through Ronnie’s life story, he asks that you smash that play button and get ready for blast off:
Ronnie was born to Pearl and Carl McNair on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. He was a middle child with two brothers. Early on in his life, Ronnie was drawn to the sciences and the gadgets and gizmos that came with it so much so that he earned the nickname “Gizmo.” The idea of a galaxy far, far away piqued his interest when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in 1957 as the first artificial satellite in space. Ronald also tuned in regularly to watch Spock live long and prosper in Star Trek as they explored the final frontier of space. Suffice it to say, Ronald was hooked on the night skies and wanted to know what lay beyond.
Growing up amidst the Civil Rights movement in the American South, Ronnie’s low-income Black family endured segregation and setbacks that made his achievements all the more noteworthy. When he was nine, Ronnie visited the local Lake City Public Library on one summer day. As he perused the segregated library’s bookshelves, employees tried to kick him out but he refused without first being allowed to check out his books (legend has it that he was carrying “The Wretched of the Earth,” as well as “Atlas Shrugged” — all right, maybe not, but he was a smart nine-year-old, OK??). After his mom and the police were called, though, Ronnie was allowed to check out the books and, flash forward a few years, that library is now named after him as the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. Boom. Roasted.
Ronnie wasn’t just one for the sciences and the maths, though. He was also a stellar athlete in baseball, basketball and football as well as a saxophonist in the school band. And he had a fifth-degree black belt in karate, because why not. Shall we call him a Ron of all trades? No? Ah, OK. Moving on. So keeping his nose in the books, Ronnie graduated as the valedictorian from Carver High School in 1967, and earned a scholarship to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University where he received his degree magna cum laude in engineering physics. Ronnie never said “we don’t need no education,” and went on to pursue his Ph.D. from MIT.
While at MIT, he studied laser physics and his dissertation was titled “Energy Absorption and Vibrational Heating in Molecules Following Intense Laser Excitation.” Woah. So he was, like, really smart, driven and dedicated to that laser life. Before defending his dissertation, Ronnie did face a scare when two years of his specialized laser physics research was allegedly stolen. Luckily, though, he was able to produce a second set of data in half of the amount of time it took him his first go round. And, according to his doctoral thesis adviser, Michael Feld, McNair never complained about the setback and that, “the second set turned out better than the first set of data. This was typical of the way he worked to accomplish goals.” He graduated in 1976. That same year, he married his wife Cheryl McNair. The two left one coast for another and headed to California, where Ronald accepted a position as a scientist at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California.
While living his best scientist life, Ronnie came across an opening at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or what we like to call a li’l thang named NASA, and applied to its astronaut program. Thousands upon thousands of hopeful scientists applied and only 35 were selected in 1978. Who was one of those 35 you ask? Well, it was Ariana Grande of course! Which inspired the creation of her absolute bop “NASA,” obviously. Or…not. Kidding! That wouldn’t make sense. The one of the 35 was our guy, Ronald McNair, duh. He, along with his fellow selectees, Guion S. Bluford, Jr. and Frederick Gregory, made history as the first African-Americans to be selected by NASA as astronauts.
In 1984, Ronnie became the second Black man ever to fly in space when he climbed aboard the Challenger on February 3 for its STS-41-B mission. While floatin’ among the stars and planets, Ronnie controlled the Challenger’s robotic arm which helped his fellow spaceship mate, commonly called an astronaut, Bruce McCandless, become a skywalker — AKA he floated freely in outer space. Ronnie spent 191 hours in space and the Challenger orbited the Earth 122 times, making that an around-the-world adventure in eight days.
When he wasn’t floatin’ high as a kite in outer space, Ronnie was practicing his oh-so-sexy sax skills on land. That’s right: get you a man who can shoot light out of a laser just as easily as he can shoot groovy tunes out of a saxophone. Ronnie also worked with Jean-Michel Jarre to compose a piece for his 1986 album “Rendez-Vous.” Jean-Michel and Ronnie cooked up a dope idea: What’s better than groovin’ tunes on land? Groovin’ tunes in outer space. Basically, Jean-Michel wanted to give Ronnie an extra challenge. He would record his saxophone solo aboard the Challenger. It would’ve been the first original piece of music to be recorded in space. He was also set to beam down to Earth through a live feed for Jean-Michel’s live concert in Houston. However, those plans never panned out.
In 1985, Ronald was selected as one of seven crew members for the STS-51-L mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger. His fellow crew members included astronauts Michael J. Smith, Francis R. Scobee; and Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis and Judith A. Resnik. This space mission’s goal was to launch the second Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS-B) as well as the Spartan Halley spacecraft, another small satellite that would’ve been picked up two days later after observing Halley’s Comet as it approached the sun #justspacethings. The mission experienced many a delay leading up to its launch due to bad weather and other NASA missions running behind schedule. And, the night before its newly scheduled launch, Florida was hit with a cold front which resulted in thick ice on the launch pad. Again, liftoff was pushed back to 11:28 a.m. on January 28, 1986.
Seventy-three seconds after takeoff, the Challenger erupted in flames 46,000 feet in the air and killed all seven crew members on board. An O-ring seal in the shuttle’s right solid-fuel rocket booster, which was created to prevent leaks from the fuel tank during liftoff, failed to re-seal because of the colder-than-usual temperatures. Hot gas began pouring through, which resulted in a combination of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, creating the fatal fireball that was once a spaceship. Pieces of the Challenger continued to climb, but at 65,000 feet aerodynamic forces (AKA gravity) set in and pulled the orbiter apart. Ronald never got to play his saxophone in space.
Allan McDonald, who was the Director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Mother Project for the NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, did not sign a launch recommendation for the Challenger the night before. Morton Thiokol produced the rocket motors that lifted space shuttles from their launch pads. Some of the Thiokol engineers expected O-ring failures at liftoff, and many, apparently, advised against the launch of the Challenger. The rubber O-rings line the joints of the stacked metal cans of the rocket motors and prevent burning propellant from leaking out.
This disaster resulted in a long pause for the space shuttle program as well as the formation of the Rogers Commission, which was an investigative committee created by President Reagan to figure out what went wrong — even though, up to two whole years beforehand, many engineers already recommended a no-go for takeoff of the Challenger. In addition to finding out the obvious, which was that NASA and Morton Thiokol failed the engineering requirements of the mission as well as management, the Rogers Commission also determined that NASA didn’t have the personnel or parts to maintain its ambitious flight rate of 24 missions a year. Technicians were overworked and didn’t even have the necessary resources to maintain a successful space program.
Ronald McNair was 35 years young when he died aboard the Challenger, alongside his fellow crew mates. In the wake of the Challenger disaster, the families of the crew members worked together to form the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which is a nonprofit that encourages kids from all walks of life to pursue their STEM studies so they, too, can reach for the moon and land amongst the stars. Cheryl McNair is the Founding Director. And, though Ronnie never got the chance to flex his sax skills in space, Jean-Michel left a special tribute to Ronnie on his album with a dedication to him in the liner notes.