Ronald Erwin McNair was born on October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, to Carl and Pearl McNair. In 1971, he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Physics degree from the North Carolina A & T State University. In 1976, he earned his Ph.D. degree in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and went on to work with the Hughes Research Laboratory where he became recognized as an expert in the field of laser physics.
Dr. McNair realized his dream of becoming an astronaut in 1978, when he was selected from a pool of 10,000 applicants for the NASA space shuttle program, and became the second African-American to fly in space. After his death aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Congress approved funding for the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, dedicated to the support and promotion of the high standards of achievement exemplified by McNair.