The McNair Scholars Program was named to commemorate the academic achievements of Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair, Physicist and one of seven crew members who perished in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Ronald Erwin McNair was born on October 21, 1950, in Lake City, South Carolina, to Carl and Pearl McNair. Although he grew up amidst crushing poverty, McNair always exhibited a deep thirst for scientific knowledge. 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.
In addition to his academic achievements, Dr. McNair received three honorary doctorate degrees and many fellowships and commendations. These included Presidential Scholar, 1967-1971; Ford Foundation Scholar, 1971-1974; National Fellowship Fund Fellow, 1974-1975; Omega Psi Phi Scholar of the Year, 1975; Distinguished National Scientist, National Society of Black Professional Engineers, 1979; and Friend of Freedom Award, 1981. He also held a fifth-degree black belt in karate and was an accomplished jazz saxophonist.
Dr. McNair realized his dream of becoming an astronaut in 1978 when he was selected from a pool of ten thousand applicants for the NASA space shuttle program and became the second African-American to fly in space. Dr. McNair participated in two space shuttle flights aboard the Challenger, logging a total of 191 hours in space during his first flight.
After his death aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Congress approved funding for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program in recognition of his accomplishments. The McNair Scholars Program, dedicated to the support and promotion of the high standards of achievement exemplified by McNair, is designed to increase the number of low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority college students who pursue and complete doctoral degrees and is dedicated to excellence in teaching, research, service, and practice.