Dr. Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park

Dr. Ronald E. McNair (1950-1986) was a native of Lake City and renowned physicist and astronaut. He was the second African American astronaut to travel in space, after Guion Bluford, and on January 28, 1986, he was part of the seven-astronaut crew that died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. He was educated in Florence County’s segregated schools and in 1959, at the age of nine, he entered Lake City public library which was white only to check out science books. The librarian refused to give him his books based on his race and called the police. As the police came, he was confident in that the knowledge he sought was rightfully his. McNair would leave the library unscathed with his books in hand and his mother and brother at his side. Decades later, that library would become the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center and museum located at the site of his monument and park.

Dr. Ronald E. McNair (1950-1986) was a native of Lake City and renowned physicist and astronaut. He was the second African American astronaut to travel in space, after Guion Bluford. McNair was educated in Florence County’s segregated schools. In 1959, at the age of nine, he entered Lake City public library which was white only to check out science books. The librarian refused to give him his books based on his race and called the police. As the police came, he was confident in that the knowledge he sought was rightfully his. The police persuaded the librarian to let McNair check out his books. McNair would leave the library unscathed with his books in hand and his mother and brother at his side. Decades later, that library would become the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center and museum located at the site of his monument and park. Graduating from Carver High School, McNair went on to North Carolina A&T State University, earning a Bachelor of Science in physics in 1971. He then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) receiving a Ph.D. in physics in 1976. It was during this time at MIT that McNair became interested in lasers and became a laser physicist at Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. He then qualified to become a NASA mission specialist in 1979 after completing a year of training. In 1984, McNair was Mission Specialist aboard the flight of the Space Shuttle, Challenger making him the second African American to fly to space. McNair and his four other crew members would log 191 hours in space on the eight-day mission and the Challenger would make 128 orbits around the Earth on that trip.

McNair would receive three honorary doctorate degrees and many fellowships and accolades.  These distinctions included being a Presidential Scholar, 1967-71; Ford Foundation Fellow, 1971-74; National Fellowship Fund Fellow, 1974-75; Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year, 1975; Distinguished National Scientist, National Society of Black Professional Engineers, 1979; and the Friend of Freedom Award, 1981.  He also held a fifth-degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist, often playing his saxophone in space, “a medley of songs designed to send a message of thankfulness and hope to all mankind.”[1]  He was a churchgoing family man, married to Cheryl B. Moore and was the dedicated father of a daughter, Joy Cheray McNair, and son, Reginald Ervin McNair.

On January 28, 1986, he was part of the seven-astronaut crew that died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Devastated by his death, Lake City began in 1989 as a collaboration among the Ronald McNair Committee, a community organization dedicated to opening a museum in his memory; the City of Lake City; and the Lake City Library Board, to build a memorial park in his honor. The city broke ground on the park in 1991 and it was dedicated on February 11, 1992, eight years to the day of McNair’s completed mission as a specialist on the Challenger’s first landing at Kennedy Space Center. A granite wall created by the Coastal Monument Company of Conway was erected in 1995 describing McNair’s life along with a life-size, smiling, bronze statue of McNair wearing his Space Shuttle jumpsuit and holding a helmet created by Detroit artist Ed Chesney. In June 2004, McNair’s remains were relocated from his original burial site within Rest Lawn Memorial Cemetery, about five miles away, and re-entombed at the park in a sarcophagus next to the statue. An eternal flame flickers in front of it from a gas streetlamp. The Ronald McNair Life History Center and museum is dedicated to McNair and opened in 2011. The museum inside the building tells the story of McNair’s boyhood in segregated South Carolina.

[1] This quote is inscribed on the granite monument to McNair at his memorial park.

Saint Teresa Community Outreach and Empowerment received a Growth Grant from South Carolina Humanities. Funding for the Growth Grants has been provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

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