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 BS degree in physics in 1971. McNair then enrolled in the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1976, at the age of 26, he earned his Ph.D. in laser physics. His dissertation title was 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. NASA selected him for the space shuttle program in 1978, and he was a mission specialist aboard the tragic 1986 flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Besides his academic achievements, McNair received three honorary doctoral degrees and many fellowships and commendations. These distinctions include: Presidential Scholar, 1967-71; Ford Foundation Fellow, 1971-74; National Fellowship Fund Fellow, 1974-75; Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year, 1975; Distinguished National Scientist, National Society of Black Professional Engineers, 1979; and the Friend of Freedom Award, 1981, as well as many others.
A science building at MIT was named for him. McNair 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 death in the USS Challenger Space Shuttle accident in January 1986, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage minority and low-income/first generation college students to expand their educational opportunities and pursue graduate studies. This program is dedicated to the high standards of achievement inspired by Dr. McNair's life.