The Astronaut Who Wouldn't Go Away

On the way to another tale, I found Ronald McNair.  I was doing some background work for a post on explorers and exploration when I read his compelling story, and it warrants its own treatment.

McNair, you may recall, was one of the 7 crew members who were killed when the rocket carrying the space shuttle Challenger blew up just after liftoff in January, 1986.  He was on the shuttle as what NASA called a “mission specialist,” in charge of several scientific experiments that were to be performed on the trip.  He never got to do that job, but when he died, he left an incredible and inspiring legacy of accomplishment.

Ron McNair was a true pioneer, and he started young.  He grew up in the 50’s in Lake City, South Carolina – a place and an era when racial segregation were both law and practice.  In the summer of 1959, when he was 9 years old, he went to the Lake City public library to borrow books.  The librarian refused to serve him, and young Ron refused to leave.  The police and his mother were called, and when the dust had settled, the librarian relented and he went home with the books.  The Lake City library is now named for him.

McNair was, in so many respects, an uncommon man and a brilliant student.  He earned a degree in engineering physics from North Carolina A&T University, then went on to a PhD in physics from MIT and a job as a physicist at a California research lab.  He became nationally recognized for his work in laser physics.

In 1978, NASA opened a competition for its astronaut program.  10,000 applied, and McNair was one of 35 selected.  He flew on Challenger in 1984, the second African-American to go into space.

But McNair’s passions went far beyond physics and space flight.  He played the saxophone and played it well, and he wanted to take his music into space.  He worked with a composer on a saxophone solo which was to become part of the composer’s upcoming album, and planned to record the solo during the 1986 Challenger mission.  The shuttle disaster prevented that, but I have to believe there’s a haunting saxophone solo somewhere out there amid all the cluttered noise of space.

If McNair were here to be interviewed today, looking back on a brilliant life in science, leavened with a love of music, I think he might harken back to that summer day in 1959 when he refused to leave the Lake City library without the books he wanted.  When I read about that, I thought about the college president I interviewed not long ago who told his students, “Don’t let anybody steal your dream.”  Ron McNair wouldn’t let anybody steal his.  He combined intelligence, curiosity and creativity with stubborn persistence.  It’s a pretty good recipe for success.

A host of posthumous honors have been heaped on McNair since his death – buildings named for him, scholarships established in his honor.  But I believe the one he would be proudest of is that Lake City library.  It stands as a simple but proud monument to – and a shining example of -- a kid who just wouldn’t go away.