McNair/Gateway Scholars Program USC

Who is Ronald McNair?


Ronald McNair training on the RMS simulator, June 1983. Image via NASA.

Ronald Erwin McNair was born October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina. He attended North Carolina A&T State University where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. degree in physics in 1971. McNair then enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1976, at the age of 26, he earned his Ph.D. in laser physics. His dissertation was entitled, "Energy Absorption and Vibrational Heating in Molecules Following Intense Laser Excitation." McNair soon became a recognized expert in laser physics while working as a staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory. He was selected by NASA for the space shuttle program in 1978 and was a mission specialist aboard the 1984 flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

In addition to his academic achievements, Dr. McNair received three honorary doctoral degrees and many fellowships and commendations. He also held a fifth degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist. He was married and had a son and a daughter.

After his untimely death in the Challenger Space Shuttle accident in January 1986, members of Congress provided funding for the federal Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. The program encourages low-income and first-generation college students and students from historically underrepresented ethnic groups to expand their educational opportunities by enrolling in a Ph.D. program.

This program is dedicated to the high standards of achievement inspired by Dr. McNair's life. You can learn more about Ronald E. McNair on NASA's website.