Erwin McNair was born October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South
Carolina to Carl and Pearl McNair. He attended North Carolina A&T
State University where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.S.
degree in physics in 1971. McNair then enrolled in the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. In 1976, at the age of 25, he earned his
Ph.D. degree in laser physics.
McNair soon became a recognized expert in laser physics while working as staff physicist with Hughes Research Laboratory. NASA selected him for the space shuttle program in 1978, and assigned him as mission specialist aboard the 1984 fight of the shuttle Challenger.
For his achievements, McNair received three honorary doctorate degrees and many fellowships and commendations. These included 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. McNair also held a fifth degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist. He was married and had a son and daughter.
After his death in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in January 1986, members of Congress provided funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. The goal of this effort is to encourage low-income students, students of underrepresented populations in graduate education and students whose parents do not have college degrees to enroll in graduate studies. This program is dedicated to the high standard of achievement inspired by Ronald E. McNair's life.