Ronald Erwin McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina to Carl and Pearl McNair. In 1971, he received a B.S. in physics, and graduated magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University. McNair then enrolled in graduate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was awarded a Ph.D. degree in physics in 1976.
He became a recognized expert in laser physics while a staff physicist at the Hughes Research Laboratory. Dr. McNair joined the space shuttle program in 1978, and NASA assigned him as a mission specialist aboard the 1984 flight of the Shuttle Challenger.
For his academic achievements, McNair received three honorary doctorate degrees and numerous fellowships and commendations. Dr. McNair also held a fifth degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist. He was married and had a son and a daughter.
After his death in the Challenger space shuttle accident in January 1986, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program to encourage minority and low-income, first-generation college students to enroll in graduate studies. This program is dedicated to the high standard of achievement Ronald E. McNair's life represented.