SC Challenger astronaut was an ordinary man who lived an extraordinary life

By: Chad Mills Email
By: Chad Mills Email

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Saturday, April 30, 2011

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL---In 1986, Carl McNair went down to Kennedy Space Center to wish his brother Godspeed. His brother happened to be an astronaut aboard Space Shuttle Challenger. Carl had to return home to Atlanta before Ron's launch.

“We saw it on television like a lot of other people did at that time," Carl said.

As he watched live, he saw the shuttle break apart in a massive explosion.

“Then they started repeating it over and over again. Then you knew, that this was not a science fiction movie," he said.

It was a moment in time that Carl will never forget.

“I saw my dad cry for the first time in my life. And, I still believe that, to this day, that was the worst day of my life," Carl says.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of that disaster. Lela Austin, Ron's aunt, was down before the launch happened too.

“We talked with Ronald. He said we probably won’t launch because of the weather," she recalled.

“It got so cold that we could see icicles on the shuttle wings," Carl added.

The shuttle launched anyway. Because of the cold temperatures, there was a mechanical failure, and the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds after the lift-off, killing its seven crew members, including Ron.

“It was just a very trying time," Austin said.

Even though Ron's spirit left Earth, his legacy is still strong here. It can be felt across his native South Carolina--even the world.

“Ron had that special something that was very curious, very precocious. The harder the subjects were, the better," said Carl.

As a nine-year-old in segregated Lake City, South Carolina, Ron had already begun to push the bounds. He was hungry for knowledge.

“The books that were available to him were not sufficient, so he wanted to go the library to get some more," said Austin.

He did just that in 1959. He wanted to check out a stack of books from Lake City Public Library.

“The librarian said to him, well, you know, you’re not supposed to be here. We don’t provide books to coloreds," said Carl.

Ron didn't care.

“He just sat there, jumped up on the counter. He said, well, I’ll wait, holding these books," said Carl.

When the police came, they let Ron keep the books. Ron later went on to get his Ph.D. and do the impossible.

“Ron called me up one day, and I’m presuming he hadn’t told anyone else in the family at this time, but he says, I don’t know if I should tell you this, he said, but I’m going to be an astronaut," Carl recalled.

Carl doubted it would happened, but he listened in as Walter Cronkite read down the list of finalists for the 35 astronaut positions for the brand new space shuttle program.

“And he got down to Ronald E. McNair, and I heard nothing else. It was like fading into the twilight zone," said Carl.

Ron completed training and became the second African-American in space. He successfully flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984.

Though his next launch aboard Challenger in 1986 was tragically cut short, his life, legacy, and story continues to inspire people from all walks of life.

“I have letters from teachers that told me that after reading about your brother, I have a new commitment to teaching. I was about to throw in the towel," Carl says.

Carl believes that in other poor rural South Carolina communites--as well as those across the nation--there are other children like Ron.

“We have diamonds in the rough. If we put the right resources behind it, they’ll be other Ron McNairs, but you never know--you never know. You can’t give up on any child," said Carl.

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