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Black folks they didn’t teach us about in school, day 5

In the last year or so I’ve learned an awful lot about just how much I never learned. My plan is to write up a short piece each day this month on an important or influential black figure from history beyond the whitewashed MLK/Rosa/Malcolm/G.W. Carver bits that we always got in school, because I think it’s important for white kids to know about things beyond themselves and it’s important for black kids to know things about themselves.

Ronald McNair

Plenty of little kids have astronauts as heroes. Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, and Sally Ride come to mind. My older brother, who is a huge nerd, once tried to fistfight me in a bar because he thought I had insulted Buzz Aldrin. Space is such a mystifying thing that it’s hard not to be enthralled by tales of the men and women who breach our atmosphere and explore it.

One name I had never heard until recently was that of Ronald McNair. McNair was one of the astronauts on the doomed Challenger launch 30 years ago, so when his name is mentioned, it’s usually in that context: as a tragic figure. But man, was he so much more than that.

McNair was the second African-American to go into space. On his first trip, he played his saxophone on board, making him quite possibly the coolest person to ever board a space shuttle. 

NPR’s profile of McNair from the 25th anniversary of his death goes into great detail about his refusal to let the odds dictate what he would and would not try. Perhaps no story about McNair says it better than this:

“When he was 9 years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library,” Carl tells his friend Vernon Skipper.

The library was public, Carl says — “but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959.”

“So, 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.’ ”

There’s now a children’s book about that incident, by the way. 

McNair graduated from North Carolina A&T and went on to MIT, where he earned his Ph.D. in physics. He applied and was accepted into the astronaut program. He had planned to teach physics at the University of South Carolina, one of the schools that had turned him down for undergrad because of his race, when he returned from the Challenger mission. 

That dream was never realized, but in its place, his family established the McNair Scholars Program, which has helped more than 60,000 disadvantaged students attend college since that tragic day. A ridiculously brave man with a ridiculously strong legacy. 

Filed under Black History Month.

NASA Day of Remembrance

Every year at this time, we take a moment to reflect as the NASA Family on the very broad shoulders on which we stand: the shoulders of those women and men of NASA who gave their lives so that we could continue to reach for new heights for the benefit of all humankind.

To honor our fallen heroes and friends, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Deputy Administrator Dava Newman spoke at a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, at the grave sites of the fallen crew.

The crew aboard the International Space Station also payed tribute with a moment of silence. 

President Barack Obama recognized the day with the release of an official statement that honors the legacy of the heroes who lost their lives helping America touch the stars.

To view the President’s full statement, visit HERE

Visit our Day of Remembrance page to learn about the crews & missions we’ve lost: http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/DOR2016/index.html

Thank you for keeping our fallen colleagues in your hearts and for honoring their legacy.

Your Letters Helped Challenger Shuttle Engineer Shed 30 Years Of Guilt
After NPR reported Bob Ebeling's story on the anniversary of the Challenger explosion, hundreds of people responded. Ebeling, now 89, says those letters "helped bring my worrisome mind to ease."

When NPR reported Bob Ebeling’s story on the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, hundreds of listeners and readers expressed distress and sympathy in letters and emails.

On Jan. 27, 1986, the former engineer for shuttle contractor Morton Thiokol had joined four colleagues in trying to keep Challenger grounded. They argued for hours that the launch the next morning would be the coldest ever. Freezing temperatures, their data showed, stiffened rubber O-rings that keep burning rocket fuel from leaking out of the joints in the shuttle’s boosters.

But NASA officials rejected that data, and Thiokol executives overruled Ebeling and the other engineers.


Thirty years ago today, at 11:38 a.m. EST, January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Christa McAuliffe, teacher from New Hampshire, was to be the first ordinary U.S. civilian to travel into space. Challenger‘s launch countdown was repeatedly delayed because of weather and technical problems. Finally, on January 28, the shuttle lifted off.

73 seconds later, hundreds on the ground, including Christa’s family, stared in disbelief as the shuttle exploded in a forking plume of smoke and fire, killing all seven crew members. Millions more watched the heart-wrenching tragedy unfold on live television.

“The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave.” President Reagan said. “The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.”


TODAY IN SCIENCE: The First Woman in Space

Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on this day in 1983.

Lift-off is very exciting! There isn’t really time to be scared, but it’s exhilarating and sometimes overwhelming. 
—Sally Ride, Female Frontiers QuestChat, March 23, 1999

As a child, Ride’s dream was to be a professional tennis player. As an adult, she achieved something that many children dream of doing – she became an astronaut and orbited the Earth.

Ride entered the astronaut corps in 1978, one of only 35 people accepted out of over 8,000 applications, and was trained as a mission specialist. Her qualifications included a doctoral degree in physics. One of only six women accepted into NASA’s space program the year she applied, Ride became the first American woman in space when she blasted off aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on this day in 1983.

Ride flew on two space flights during her career at NASA, both aboard Challenger. During Ride’s second space flight, in October 1984, one of the crew, Dr. Kathy Sullivan, became the first woman to walk in space. Ride’s planned third flight was cancelled after the Challenger exploded in January of 1986; Ride served on the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident.

In 1987, Ride left the astronaut corps to teach at Stanford University, hoping to encourage more women to pursue careers in science and engineering. She has written several books, including a children’s book titled To Space and Back.

Learn more.

Image Credits: NASA

  1. Dr. Ride sits in the aft flight deck mission specialist’s seat during deorbit preparations. 
  2. Ride floating in the Challenger flight deck.  
  3. Ride before taking off in a T-38 jet, bound for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, three days before launch aboard Space Shuttle Challenger.  
  4. Ride participates in a mission sequence test in preparation for the STS-7 mission.  

Video: Sally Ride on Dumb Questions | Blank on Blank | PBS Digital Studios


January 28th 1986: Challenger Disaster

On this day in 1986, the US space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its tenth flight, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members. The craft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean due to  technical malfunction. The crew compartment and various fragments were  recovered from the ocean floor, and several of the crew are known to  have survived the initial breakup and died upon impact with the ocean  surface. The tragedy occurred the same day as President Ronald Reagan was  due to give his annual State of the Union address, but he postponed the speech  and instead gave a national address on the Challenger disaster. Reagan quoted the poem ‘High Flight’ by American Second World War pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr in a speech which is still regarded as one of his most memorable.

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning,  as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the  surly bonds of Earth’ to 'touch the face of God.’”

30 years ago