Astronaut Ronald McNair, who died in the Challenger explosion, was born in South Carolina but eventually claimed his father’s Harlem neighborhood as his home.
Thursday is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, which was captured on live television. McNair and the six other passengers on board — Christa McAuliffe, Michael Smith, Francis Scobee, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnick — perished as the shuttle burst into pieces. Nationwide, those lives lost will be remembered in many different ceremonies, and McNair’s older brother, Carl S. McNair, can hardly believe that his brother is still being memorialized.
“We always had a presence there,” Carl S. McNair, told the Daily News. “Our father was there — lots of family and friends we’d only see when we were there. New York was the base.”
A small area in Harlem where McNair could frequently be found has been dedicated to the memory of the second African-American in outer space. From local restaurants to schools and playgrounds, McNair’s influence is felt.
“It’s funny to see people still celebrating him like they will this year,” Carl said.
“The kids at those schools [named after McNair] weren’t even born back then. Did he ever know this would happen when he was back in school? Absolutely not.”
Despite the segregated nature of society when McNair was growing up, he worked hard to follow his dreams and pursue a career in science, becoming one of the few black students at the time earning a physics PhD at MIT. It was in 1978 that McNair learned about a chance to apply to work for NASA.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be an astronaut. And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna be the pope,’” Carl recalled.
But McNair defied all naysayers and made the program, along with only 34 others. He even famously took his saxophone with him to space.
He planned to leave the space program and settle down with his wife and children to teach after the Challenger mission. Instead, McNair tragically lost his life, along with his fellow astronauts, when the Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986.