Eyes on the Stars: Astronaut Ronald McNair, Who Perished in the Challenger Disaster, Remembered by His Brother in an Affectionate Animated Short Film
By Maria Popova
Shortly after noon on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off on its tenth mission. Seventy-three seconds later, off the coast of Florida, it combusted into a ball of fire and smoke on national television, imprinting generations with the shock of the tragedy. All crew members — five men and two women, including the first-ever non-government civilian to travel into the cosmos, a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe — perished. Among them was 35-year-old astronaut Ronald McNair (October 21, 1950–January 28, 1986) — a promising young physicist, a skilled saxophonist, and the second black person to fly into space. (On another Challenger mission three years earlier, Sally Ride had become the first American woman in orbit.)
In this wonderful animated short film from StoryCorps, the text of which is included alongside other moving and deeply humane stories in the marvelous book Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work (public library) edited by StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, McNair’s brother Carl and his friend Vernon Skipper remember young Ronald’s defiant spirit of curiosity.
Folded into this affectionate account is a larger piece of civil rights history, a counterpoint to cultural stereotypes about race, law enforcement and even librarians, and a meditation on the elemental impulse for curiosity that animates all scientists and propels all science. Above all, the story emanates a clarion call to never forget — never forget our history, however difficult it may be to own up to, never forget our heroes, however tragic their fate, and never forget the power of storytelling as a caring keeper of our collective memory.
Carl McNair: We knew from an early age that my brother Ron was different. When he was nine years old, Ron decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library — which was, of course, a public library, but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959 in segregated South Carolina.
So as he was walking through the library, all these folks were staring at him, because it was white folk only, and they were looking at him and saying, you know, “Who is this Negro?” [Laughter.]
He found some books, and he politely positioned himself in line to check out. Well, this old librarian says, “This library is not for coloreds.” He said, “I would like to check out these books.” She says, “Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m going to call the police!” He just propped himself up on the counter and sat there and said, “I’ll wait.”
So she called the police and subsequently called my mother. The police came down, two burly guys, and say, “Well, where’s the disturbance?” She pointed to the nine-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. One of the policemen says, “Ma’am, what’s the problem?”
So my mother, in the meanwhile, she comes down there, and she’s praying the whole way: “Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail!” My mother asked the librarian, “What’s the problem?” The librarian said, “He wanted to check out the books. You know that your son shouldn’t be down here.”
The police officer said, “Why don’t you just give the kid the books?” And my mother said, “He’ll take good care of them.” Reluctantly, the librarian gave Ron the books, and my mother said, “What do you say?” He said, “Thank you, ma’am.” [Laughs.]
Ron did exceptionally well at school, and he was very good in science and math. During his junior year in high school, his chemistry professor told him about a summer institute for math and science, so he went three hundred miles or so from home to participate in this program. He met a professor there who said, “The highest academic level you can go is PhD, and young man, I think you should shoot for it.” And Ron says, “That sounds like a pretty good idea, sir. I’ll get a PhD.” And he went on to get a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then, when NASA was looking for astronauts, here he was with a PhD in physics.
Ron went on a space flight in February of 1984. When he went out in space and he looked out at the world, he saw no lines of demarcation. It was a world of peace, he said. And two years later, he took his last flight on the space shuttle Challenger.
You know, as youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek. Now, Star Trek showed the future, where there were black folk and white folk — all kinds of folk — working together. I looked at it as science fiction — that wasn’t going to happen, really. But Ronald saw it as science possibility.
He was always someone who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm. That was for other people. In Ron’s own words, he was the kind of person who “hung it over the edge.” He’d go as far as he could, then go one step beyond that.
Ron was a country boy from segregated, small-town South Carolina. Who would dream that he could become an astronaut? But it was his time. And he got to be aboard his own starship Enterprise.
Callings is a tremendously nourishing read in its entirety, featuring stories by and about inspiring humans from walks of life as varied as firefighters, NBA referees, funeral directors, and librarians. Complement this particular thread with Primo Levi on how space exploration unites humanity and the wonderful Blast Off, a vintage children’s book that envisioned a black female astronauts decades before one flew into space.
Published June 6, 2016