The McNair Scholars Program is named in honor of Dr. Ronald E. McNair, the laser physicist and Challenger space shuttle astronaut. McNair graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1971 and received his Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He was selected by NASA for the space shuttle program in 1978 and was mission specialist on the successful 1984 Challenger flight before his death in the space shuttle accident of 1986. Those who knew Ronald McNair characterized him as fearless, determined, and resourceful to applying all available resources to any problem he faced.
Ronald E. McNair was the second of three mission specialists aboard Challenger. Born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina, McNair was the son of Carl C. McNair, Sr., and Pearl M. McNair. He achieved early success in the segregated public schools he attended as both a student and an athlete. Valedictorian of his high school class, he attended North Carolina A&T State University where in 1971 he received a B.S. degree in physics. He went on to study physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology, completing his Ph.D. in 1977. As a student he performed some of the earliest work on chemical HF/DF and high pressure CO lasers, publishing pathbreaking scientific papers on the subject.
McNair was also a physical fitness advocate and pursued athletic training from an early age. He was a leader in track and football at his high school. He also became a black belt in Karate, and while in graduate school began offering classes at St. Paul's AME Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also participated in several Karate tournaments, taking more than 30 trophies in these competitions. While involved in these activities, McNair met and married Cheryl B. Moore of Brooklyn, New York, and they later had two children. After completing his Ph.D. he began working as a physicist at the Optical Physics Department of Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, and conducted research on electro-optic laser modulation for satellite-to-satellite space communications.
This research led McNair into close contact with the space program for the first time, and when the opportunity presented itself he applied for astronaut training. In January 1978 NASA selected him to enter the astronaut cadre, one of the first three Black Americans selected. McNair became the second Black American in space between February 3 and 11, 1984, by flying on the Challenger shuttle mission STS-41-B. During this mission McNair operated the maneuverable arm built by Canada used to move payloads in space. The 1986 mission on which he was killed was his second Shuttle flight.
The mission of the McNair Scholars Program is to increase the number of non-traditional and under-represented students who enroll in graduate school to pursue doctoral degrees. The primary populations are first-generation and low-income sophomores and juniors.