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University of Wisconsin–Madison McNair Scholars Program

Developing leaders through Graduate Education


Ronald E. McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina. Click here for a StoryCorps feature called Eyes on the Stars, narrated by Ronald McNair’s brother Carl.

After graduating Valedictorian of his high school class, McNair attended North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, where, in 1971, he graduated magna cum laude with 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 remarkable scientific papers on the subject. 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. McNair’s research brought him 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 as one of the first three African Americans selected. McNair became the second African American in space between February 3 and 11, 1984, by flying on the Challenger shuttle mission STS-41-B. Two years later McNair and his six crew members died in an explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger. In his memory, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage low-income, first generation college students to enroll in graduate studies. This program is dedicated to the high standard of achievement that Ronald E. McNair’s life represented.

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