Ronald McNair was one of the astronauts that were tragically killed when the Challenger spaceship exploded on Tuesday, January 28, 1986. It was a tragedy of the NASA space program that will never be forgotten. McNair though battled his way through life, always dreaming big and was always exceeding the boundaries he found in front of him. McNair was the second African American to ever fly and visit space. Before the accident in 1986 he had been aboard a voyage that went to space in 1984 – famously playing his saxophone while the shuttle was orbiting.
He lived an amazing life, and the story of how he pushed racial tensions at the time to pursue his dreams are incredible. Growing up in South Carolina was still a very segregated place when Ron was 9 years old. He knew that he wanted to be an astronaut and had to learn about science and space. So Ron walked a mile to the local city public library, and when he got there, everyone started to stare at him. There was at the time no public libraries in South Carolina for black folks, this was the 1950s.
Ron lined up to check out his books and the librarian told him that he was not allowed. She threatened to call the police, but Ron boldly told her that he would wait. The police and Ron’s mother Pearl were called to the scene. Imagine police being called to stop a 9-year-old boy from advancing his knowledge in a public library. Even the police officers were a little surprised, asking the librarian where the disturbance was.
In the end, Ron was allowed to check out the books he wanted, after promising to take good care of them. His brother Carl remembers that watching Ron’s career grow was like watching a space-themed tv series such as Star Trek – he just couldn’t believe it was happening. In this era, NASA astronauts were considered to be celebrities, you were filling the boots of people such as Neil Armstrong.
Eventually, Ronald McNair went on to graduate from the North Carolina A&T State University. He went on to study at MIT, was able to earn himself a Ph.D. in physics which is a requirement for becoming an astronaut. Just think if he had not had the determination to go against what were the society’s norms at the time, Ron may never have become an astronaut, sometimes you just have to believe and follow your dreams.