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The Sky is not the Limit!

Explore: The Life and Legacy of Dr. Ronald McNair

Dr. Ronald McNair NASA astronaut
Dr. Ronald McNair, NASA

 

“The moon was the logical next step, then the planets, and then-- Who knows? The sky was no longer the limit for human aspiration. The explorer's spirit that had taken humankind to the remotest corners of the earth now reached for an immensely grander horizon, an infinite frontier limited only by our courage and technology.”

On October 4, 1957, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics sent Sputnik, a satellite roughly two feet in diameter and just around 200 pounds, into space, where it orbited earth in just under 100 minutes. This event marked the start of the Space Age and motivated the founding of an American space agency: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which was officially launched on October 1, 1958. In Lake City, South Carolina, the news of Sputnik sparked the curiosity and planted a seed of possibility in the mind and heart of seven-year-old Ronald McNair.

Ronald McNair NASA astronaut at mission control
Ronald McNair at Mission Control, NASA

 

“Ron didn't fly to the stars; he climbed there one step at a time....His work ethic, his competitive spirit, his passion for challenges all sprang from a deep commitment to persevere. When others surrendered, Ron kept pushing. When those around him threw in the towel, he simply worked harder, stayed up later, and accomplished more.”

Growing up in the rural segregated South, Ronald would face many obstacles in his journey to space, but at each step he was fortunate to have family, teachers and mentors believe in his ability and push him to excel. His high school principal believed “Never settle for 'That'll do.' A little extra effort will make your work even better.” That philosophy served him well as he initially faced setbacks upon entering college and then during his advanced studies. With each obstacle faced, he didn't perform just good enough, but better. In 1967, Ronald graduated with honors from college, going on in 1976 to receive a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research focused on foundational work in the development of laser physics. 

NASA Challenger Space Shuttle crew
Challenger Space Shuttle Crew, NASA

 

“Truly there is no more beautiful sight...than to see the earth from space beyond. This planet is an exquisite oasis. Warmth emanates from the earth when you look at her from space...My wish is that we would allow this planet to be the beautiful oasis that she is, and allow ourselves to live more in the peace that she generates.”

In 1978, Ronald was one of only 35 candidates selected by NASA to become an astronaut from a pool of over 11,000 applicants. He underwent a year of training, qualifying as a mission specialist for NASA's tenth shuttle mission aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger (February 3, 1984 - February 11, 1984). During the mission, Ronald captured the iconic image of Bruce McCandless II, a fellow mission specialist, who was the first to embark on an untethered spacewalk. Ronald would go on to serve his second mission aboard the Challenger on January 28, 1986, which tragically exploded shortly after launch due to a structural failure.

NASA astronaut floating in space above earth
NASA Astronaut Floating in Space, NASA

 

“To go around the world 128 times at 17,500 miles per hour aboard the Rolls-Royce of space flight is one experience...But to come home amidst warmth and appreciation is an experience of equal magnitude.”

Ronald McNair lived only 35 years. In that short time, however, he not only pushed the limits of human exploration of space, but motivated a new generation of students, particularly those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, to work hard and excel to achieve their dreams. Dozens of buildings, programs and scholarships have been named in his honor. Perhaps the most notable is his hometown's local library, racially segregated during his childhood. There he stood his ground as a nine-year-old, enduring stares, intimidation by staff, and eventual arrival of police officers just for trying to borrow science and math books. Decades later, that same building would become the Dr. Ronald McNair Life History Center.

“Ron had an explorer's spirit, the courage that offers great gifts in a great cause.”

 

All quotes taken from: McNair, Carl S., and H. Michael Brewer, (2005) In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair – Astronaut: An American Hero, Publishing Associates Inc., Atlanta, GA.

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Child wearing a space shuttle superhero cape looking out of an attic window at the moon

 

References:

McNair, Carl S., and H. Michael Brewer, (2005) In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair – Astronaut: An American Hero, Publishing Associates Inc., Atlanta, GA.

NASA, Biographical Data: Ronald E. McNair, Accessed 10/21/21 from: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/mcnair_ronald.pdf

NASA, Space Shuttle Historical Timeline, Accessed 10/21/21 from: https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/587715main_Timeline_Text_Based_v3.pdf

NASA, The Universe is Closer Than You Think: Bringing Space Exploration Down to Earth for Local Students, Accessed 10/21/21 from: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/news/features/2012/mcnair_tsm.html

NASA, Why We Explore: The Birth of NASA, Accessed 10/21/21 from: https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/whyweexplore/Why_We_29.html

NASA History Division, Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age, Accessed 10/21/21 from: https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik.html

SCNOW, McNair's family wants late astronaut's legacy to remain strong, Accessed 10/21/21 from: https://scnow.com/news/local/mcnairs-family-wants-late-astronauts-legacy-to-remain-strong/article_90c1f23e-386f-528c-8925-bcb266c9046c.html

The State, South Carolina's Homepage, Lake City builds on Ron McNair’s legacy, Archive page accessed 10/21/21 from: https://web.archive.org/web/20110201025149/https://www.thestate.com/2011/01/25/1661861/lake-city-builds-on-ron-mcnairs.html

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