The Inspiring Story of Ronald E. McNair, the Astronaut Who Endured Racism & Became One of the First African Americans in Space

On January 28, 1986, NASA Challenger mission STS-51-L exploded in the sky, into a twisting plume of smoke, a mere 73 seconds after takeoff. It left a nation stunned, and seven astronauts dead. Among them was the pilot, physicist and MIT grad Ronald McNair, who, in 1984, had become only the second African-American to travel into outer space.

As this animation narrated by his own brother explains, McNair’s path to becoming an astronaut wasn’t easy. Born and raised in the Jim Crow South (in Lake City, South Carolina, to be precise) McNair encountered racism in his everyday life. One touching story helps crystallize what his experience was like. As a nine-year-old, McNair tried to check out books from the “public” library — only to discover that “public” meant books were for whites, not blacks. The video tells the rest of the story. And I’ll just flag one important detail mentioned at the very end: On January 28, 2011, exactly 25 years after his death, the library was renamed The Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. You’ll also find a Ronald E. McNair Building on MIT’s campus too. And deservedly so.

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