Ron McNair’s stunning journey from poverty to a NASA launch pad

NASA, courtesy of AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Ronald E. Mickens Collection

Astronaut, saxophonist, and karate black belt Ron McNair overcame an impoverished childhood in segregated Lake City, South Carolina to earn a Ph.D. in Physics from MIT and become one of NASA’s first black astronauts. Although Ron’s path to NASA was doomed to fail due to systemic racism and inequality, he found inspiration in the black leaders around him and persevered. Tragically, Ron’s life ended when he died in the United States challenger Catastrophe. But his legacy lives on. In this excerpt from The new by Meredith Bagby, we see McNair dropping a promising career as a laser physicist for a golden opportunity to become an astronaut. Despite the world telling him to play small, Ron was always taking risks and betting on himself. And he challenged others to do the same.


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Malibu, California. Spring 1977

“What do you mean you’re going to be an astronaut?” Carl McNair pressed the phone to his ear to make sure he was hearing his brother Ron properly.

“NASA is recruiting for the new space shuttle program,” Ron said. “So I applied.”

Applied? thought Charles. “Won’t thousands of people apply? What makes you think NASA will pick you?”

“Why not? I have the credentials,” Ron said.

Carl shook his head and laughed. The two brothers were only eleven months apart. They had spent most of their lives in sync. Nobody knew Ron better than Carl. Even so, Ron still managed to surprise him. Sure, Ron was one of the few black guys to have a PhD. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He was a top athlete in high school and college and a black belt in karate. He had recently started as a laser physicist at Hughes Research Laboratory in Malibu, California – the very company that invented lasers in the 1960s. If someone is qualified to work for NASAthought Charles it’s Ron Nevertheless, a astronaut? Astronauts were “larger-than-life heroes like Neil Armstrong and John Glenn,” not little Ron McNair of Lake City, South Carolina.

Ron had grown up in the Separate South, just three generations away from slavery. Being from the “wrong side of the tracks” was more than a term in Lake City. Actual railroad tracks separated the black and white quarters.

“We knew our place,” Carl said. The Ku Klux Klan made sure of that, threatening black citizens they deemed “haughty,” chasing their preacher out of town for supporting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and putting a cross on his head burned on their scout leader’s lawn.

Ron, the second son of father Carl Sr., a mechanic, and mother Pearl, a school teacher, grew up in modest circumstances. The first house he could remember had no indoor plumbing. The roof of the old “unpainted, weather-beaten half-timbered house” was leaking; A whole room became uninhabitable due to water damage. On rainy days, the family would place pots and pans on the floor and furniture to catch the dripping water. On stormy nights, Ron fell asleep to the metal plink plink plink of raindrops hitting cookware.

What Eight Astronauts Saw When They Looked At Earth

To help their family make ends meet, Ron and Carl, then twelve and thirteen, went into the fields to harvest cotton, tobacco, beans and cucumbers. During the summer holidays or public holidays, they waited for work at the roadside at sunrise. “You guys want to crop my bacca?” a passing farmer would yell from his truck window. “Yes sir,” the boys yelled back and climbed into the bed of the pickup.

From sunrise to sunset, under the relentless South Carolina sun, Ron and Carl got mixed up with the other tobacco crops: Bend, pluck, mix. Farmers preferred to employ young people like Ron and Carl to pick the lower leaves of their tobacco to prepare the plant to grow taller more quickly. The experienced croppers scorned the work. After a few hours the guys understood why. “By midday I felt like someone had stabbed a knife blade deep into my lower back,” Carl said. At the end of the day, the boys could barely stand. The tobacco leaves were rough on the skin and harbored tiny worms that could bite. Even more dangerous were the rattlesnakes hiding in the muddy ruts. Cotton picking was worse. The spiky coverings tore at their hands, causing them to bleed.

“I gained qualities in this cotton field,” said Ron. “I’ve gotten tough. I’ve learned to persevere. I refuse to stop.” He looked at the hard faces of “grey-haired men and women who have spent their lives doing such work” and knew he didn’t want the same fate.

Education would be his way out. Ron started reading when he was three years old. At the age of four, his family said, “He was too smart to stay home.” Carl Sr. lied about Ron’s age to get him into kindergarten. By five o’clock Ron was already wowing the teachers, marching through the school with a pencil behind his ear and a notebook in his hand. Ron flew through, skipping another class and joining his brother Carl’s class.

Some siblings might have felt like they were competing with their brilliant little brother, but instead Ron and Carl became inseparable, bonded by a shared love of learning. “Ron inspired the rest of us,” Carl said. “We wanted to beat him, and even if we couldn’t, we wanted to close the gap.” On Saturday mornings, Ron and Carl flipped through their family’s World Book Encyclopedia and dreamed of the big wide world outside of Lake City.

In Lake City, Ron and Carl studied in segregated and underfunded schools, with used textbooks, overworked teachers, and no after-school classes. In elementary school, Ron’s teachers told him and his classmates that to be successful they had to “work twice as hard, work twice as hard, and study twice as much” as white people. Ron took this message to heart, finished first in his class and became a star on the school football team.

Inspired by Star Trek

In 1966, Ron’s interest in science was sparked with the debut of Gene Roddenberry star trek. Ron never missed an episode and would race home with Carl to warm up the TV before the chime of the hour when the show was about to start. They marveled that a black woman, the beautiful and talented Nichelle Nichols, had a leading role on primetime television as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. “As a black woman, she had two punches against her in our 20th-century world,” Carl said. “But in the enlightened society of the 23rd century, she was a high-ranking and full-fledged starship officer.”

Ron followed his love of science to a high school summer program at Virginia Union University in Richmond. There, one simple question changed the course of his life. “Have you ever thought about doing a PhD?” a professor asked him after observing Ron’s abilities. When Ron returned home he had a big plan in mind. “I’m going to do a PhD,” he explained.

After graduating at the top of his class at age 16, Ron followed Carl to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University, one of the largest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the South. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and was accepted into the physics doctoral program after completing a summer program at MIT. Program. He toiled for five years in the “Dungeon,” his nickname for MIT’s physics basement. After graduating, he received his job offer from Hughes Laboratories. At twenty-seven, he and his new wife, Cheryl, moved into a sun-drenched apartment in Malibu, California.

Ron wore his bucket hat, jogging shorts, and gym socks pulled up to his knees and went for long runs on the beach. Although he only ventured ankle-deep in the water, he loved the vastness of the ocean as it suggested infinity. Looking out over the bluffs of Malibu at the Pacific, he was a world away from those cold Boston winters; the hot tobacco fields were only a distant memory. With his intelligence and determination he had climbed out of poverty. He was living his dream in Malibu: a happily married, well-off laser physicist.

Still, Ron felt something was missing.

Ron had gotten used to tackling life and not just enjoying it. Carl noted the commotion: “[Ron’s] Working at Hughes was exciting, but moving to a five-day work week felt like a step towards monotony.” “After seeing him overcome one obstacle after another, I knew he wasn’t on the plateau could be satisfied. No sooner had he reached an arduous summit than he looked on the horizon for a higher mountain to climb.”

This new challenge came in the form of a black-and-white brochure that landed in his work mailbox, announcing NASA’s search for a new class of astronaut. A few months later, Nichelle Nichols, the famous Lieutenant Uhura herself, appeared in a TV ad and made the case for NASA. Wearing a royal blue flight suit, she posed at the Apollo Mission Control Center and addressed “the whole family of humanity, minorities and women alike. Now is the time,” she said. “This is your NASA.” Ron sat stunned, as if he’d been hit by one star trek phaser beam. She spoke to him.

Out of The new by Meredith Bagby. Copyright © 2023 Meredith Bagby. Reprinted with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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