Thirty-one years ago today, Ronald McNair died.
He was only 36 years old and had already accomplished more than most do in a full lifetime.
In an NPR interview a couple of years ago, his brother, Carl, said Ron saw possibilities where others only saw closed doors. Carl told this story about the nine-year-old Ron:
Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library. The library was public, but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959 in South Carolina. As he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him — because they were white folk only — and they were looking at him and saying, you know, ‘Who is this Negro?’
So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books. Well, this old librarian, she says, ‘This library is not for coloreds.’ He said, ‘Well, I would like to check out these books.’ She says, ‘Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m gonna call the police.’
So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, ‘I’ll wait.’
The librarian called the police — and McNair’s mother, Pearl. When the police got to the library, two burly guys come in and say, ‘Well, where’s the disturbance?’ And she pointed to the little 9-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. And the policeman says, ‘Ma’am, what’s the problem?’
By then, the boys’ mother was on her way. She comes down there praying the whole way there: ‘Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail.’ And my mother asks the librarian, ‘What’s the problem?’ “He wanted to check out the books and, you know, your son shouldn’t be down here,” the librarian said.
And the police officer said, ‘You know, why don’t you just give the kid the books?’ And my mother said, ‘He’ll take good care of them.’ So, the librarian reluctantly handed over the books. And then, Carl says, “my mother said, ‘What do you say?’
And Ron answered, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Ron ultimately earned a PhD. in Physics from M.I.T. He was an accomplished saxophonist and a black belt in karate.
In 1978, he was selected as one of thirty-five from a pool of 10,000 for the astronaut program at NASA. He was a mission specialist on the Challenger in 1984, only the second African-American to fly in space, and the first of the Bahá’i faith.
He had composed a piece of music, to be played on his second Challenger mission, STS-51-L, which lifted off January 28, 1986. It would have been the first piece of original music recorded in space.