African Americans in the Space Program
Astronaut Ronald McNair stows his gear as he and STS-41B crewmate Robert Stewart prepare for reentry. Photo and description courtesy of NASA.
Ronald E. McNair, another member of the historic class of 1978—which also included Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut—was aboard the tragic 1986 flight of the Challenger, which exploded moments after takeoff. The flight was only McNair's second mission. The abortive 1986 flight was only Ronald E. McNair's second mission. During his first flight, also on the Challenger, in 1984, McNair "played a key role in the development of the shuttle's remote manipulator arm," which was used for such things as retrieving damaged satellites. A musician, McNair also became on the first person to play the saxophone in space. In 1986, he was to have used the arm he helped develop to photograph Halley's Comet. While the Challenger is almost always mentioned in discussions of McNair, other parts of his life should not be forgotten. Before joining the space program, McNair had already become known for his drive and courage. Born in 1950 in segregated South Carolina, McNair—at nine years old—went to a white's only library and refused to leave until he was allowed to check out books. After the Challenger disaster, scholarships for disadvantaged young people were renamed in his honor in more than 200 colleges and universities across the country, including the federal Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program.
In 2003, another African American made the ultimate sacrifice. Payload commander Michael P. Anderson lost his life when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon reentry over Texas.