Astronaut Ron McNair

The small town of Lake City was like many others in South Carolina: an unassuming agricultral community with a single railroad stop, green bean crops, and the annual Tobacco Festival. It was to the Lake City public library in 1959 where a precocious nine year old with a fascination for airplanes walked himself to check out books on science and calculus, and caused a memorable ruckus in doing so.

In his attempt to acquire a library card that day, young Ron McNair was forbidden to do so – the library was racially segregated, and Ron was not allowed there. “We don’t circulate books to Negroes” he was told.
Ron parked himself on the counter and politely waited until he could check out those books himself.
Police were called, as was Ron’s mother Pearl. The officers persuaded the librarian to allow them to take the books, after which Pearl said to her son “What do you say?”
“Thank you, ma’am” Ron said to the librarian.

That library is now The Ronald E. McNair Life History Center, in honor of the boy who went on to graduate valedictorian of his high school in Lake City, graduate magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University, and achieve a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he was recognized nationally for his work in laser physics.

A photo of astronaut Dr. Ron McNair standing next to a model of the Space Shuttle with an American flag behind him

As a teenager during the height of the NASA Apollo Program in the 1960s, Ron like many others was inspired by an aspirational new television show on CBS: Star Trek. On the bridge of the USS Enterprise was Lieutenant Uhura, a woman of color serving as an officer on the flagship of Earth’s Starfleet.
The actress portraying Uhura was Nichelle Nichols, a trailblazing woman that was personally encouraged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stay on the show despite its challenges.
In the 1970s Nichols worked with NASA to recruit new astronauts for the Space Shuttle Program, and among those recruits was none other than Dr. Ron McNair.

Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek wearing a red uniform

During his career Dr. McNair wielded his success to bolster educational opportunities for students in South Carolina and beyond. His name adorns schools across the state, not just as monuments – but as cauldrons where young minds ignite their passion for STEM education. From the Ronald E. McNair Science and Technology Center in Charleston to the diverse classrooms of the Ronald E. McNair Aerospace Charter School in North Charleston, his spirit lives on in every curious spark and every scientific breakthrough. 
At USC the McNair Aerospace Center feeds the wide-ranging aerospace industry in South Carolina with graduates engaged in the most modern technologies.

Delivering a commencement address at the University of South Carolina in 1984, Dr. McNair urged graduates to reach for the stars, embrace challenges, and never let go of the childlike wonder that fuels curiosity:
“Reach for the stars, y’all! Don’t let go of that kid-like wonder, and remember, the sky ain’t the limit, it’s just the beginning!”

McNair’s story isn’t just about reaching for the stars; it’s about shattering ceilings and redefining possibilities. He is a testament to the transformative power of education, a beacon of hope for young minds across South Carolina, and a constant reminder that even in the face of adversity, the sky is not the limit; it is the beginning. So, let his legacy guide us as we reach for the impossible, forever inspired by a son of South Carolina who dared to touch the stars.

Dr. McNair’s journey reminds us that every classroom is a launchpad, and every child a potential astronaut. Let his memory inspire us to open doors, shatter ceilings, and ignite the next generation of dreamers, reaching for the stars and beyond.

“To make a dream come true, first you must dream…” – Dr. Ron McNair

The Space Shuttle Challenger lifting off from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center