LAKE CITY, S.C. — On a Monday in January, 25 years ago, two brothers talked about the Chicago Bears’ dominance in the Super Bowl game the night before. They laughed at how Aiken, S.C., native and former Clemson star William “The Refrigerator” Perry scored a 1-yard touchdown and did the Super Bowl Shuffle.
They also talked about the launch, which had been delayed yet again.
“He told us it didn’t look like they were going to launch because the temperature was going to dip,” Carl McNair Jr. recalled his brother, Ronald E. McNair, a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger, telling him.
The next morning, on Jan. 28, 1986, Carl learned the shuttle was taking off.
“I thought, this can’t be right. They’re going to launch?” Carl said. “We saw the icicles (on the shuttle) ourselves.”
The millions who were watching the live coverage on television saw what happened shortly after the rocket flames lifted the shuttle from its base. Just 73 seconds into the nation’s 25th space shuttle mission, at 11:39 a.m., Challenger disintegrated in the air about 50,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Fragments of the shuttle and rocket booster darted from a cloud of smoke, streaking like fireworks through the blue sky.
Challenger’s seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, who was going to be the first teacher in space, died in the disaster that prompted an evening Oval Office address from President Ronald Reagan.
Friday is the 25th anniversary of STS 51-L, the failed mission that shut down NASA space flight for almost three years.
The country and the world learned of the 35-year-old McNair, a gifted physicist with a doctorate degree from MIT. He was a fifth-degree black belt who was on his second space mission. On his first, in 1984, he played the saxophone in space.
But his story began here in Lake City. In events this weekend he will be remembered simply as Ron, and the folks here pronounce the family name like this: Mack-Nair.
Ron was born in October 1950, 10 months after Carl. They began school together at the insistence of their father, Carl Sr.
Carl finished No. 8 in the 1967 graduating class of the old Carver High School, then a segregated school in this Florence County city of less than 10,000 surrounded by tobacco fields. The school is now Ronald E. McNair Middle School, named after his brother who was No. 1 in his class.
The McNairs grew up poor in a house at the corner of Moore and Deep River streets.
“It was a wreck when we lived in it,” Carl, who is now a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education consultant for McNair Achievement Programs, recalled. “We had to put pots and pans down when the water would come through the roof. Ron once fell through the floor in the room with the freezer and gashed a hole in his knee. You could see the bone.
“I couldn’t imagine anybody living in poverty worse than that.”
But the McNairs, who lived with their mother, Pearl, a teacher, were surrounded by a wealth of knowledge and community support. (Carl Sr. lived in New York.) And Carl and Ron leaned on each other.
They enrolled in North Carolina A&T, where the school of engineering is now named for Ron, together. Carl pledged Omega Psi Phi and Ron did the same the next semester.
Ron is praised for his trail-blazing confidence, but there were times when he doubted himself. In Lake City, he was always the smartest. At Carver, he skipped algebra and started studying trigonometry. He even helped his teacher, William Bartell, with Bartell’s graduate homework.
In college, Ron didn’t feel he was good enough in physics to succeed until an adviser convinced him to try anyway.
“That doesn’t sound like a Ph.D. candidate at M.I.T.,” Carl said. “It’s important for young people to know we don’t have it together starting out. I wish he was here to tell it.”
When Ron went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carl moved to Boston, too, and enrolled at Babson College.
“Ron asked me to come up and be his roommate,” he said. “We had never separated.”
While he studied, Ron taught karate at St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge, Mass., three times a week. One of his M.I.T. professors was one of his martial arts students.
Ron became an expert in laser physics and molecular spectroscopy, graduating from M.I.T. with a doctor of philosophy in physics in 1976. Two years later, he was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA.
Carl and other Lake City supporters were at Kennedy Space Center the first time his brother blasted off into space, but the second launch he watched on TV with millions of others.
“I thought I was dreaming and tears started to well and flow down my face,” said.
A long pause.
“I told my dad, who was living with us at the time, and that was the first time I saw my dad cry,” he continued. “That was the first time in my life.”
Reporters swarmed his house in Atlanta and his mother’s house in Lake City. They followed his family to the airport, and boarded the same Delta plane to Florida. That flight almost ended tragically, too, because when it landed the plane almost collided with another piloted by a trainee. Carl, who remained in a state of shock, followed the orders of his wife, Mary, who later retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel.
Mary pulled the family together.
“It’s hard to see your loved one killed before your eyes and everybody knows it,” Carl said. “You have a period where you pass by someone and you know they’re talking about it.
“For a full year, at any period of time, we could turn the TV on and see the shuttle blow up.”
Ron sat his briefcase down beside his car so he and his wife, Cheryl McNair, could walk to the railing to gaze a moment longer at the Charles River, a body of water that flows through Boston and empties into Boston Harbor.
The briefcase, which contained three years of research for Ron’s doctoral thesis, was gone when they prepared to leave.
“I had no idea what happened to that briefcase,” she said. “It had to be taken.”
What he did, she said, exemplified Ron’s personality. He didn’t scream or shout. He didn’t waves his arms or stomp in a fit.
He just stood there, calmly, and thought.
“I was very quiet because I didn’t know what he would do,” Cheryl said. “You could look at him and see the wheels turning. His reaction was to just stop and think.”
Ron told her it was an opportunity to go through the research at a quicker, more effective pace. And that’s what he did.
“He still graduated on time and with better results,” Cheryl said. “The point is that you can get it done.”
Cheryl, the founding chairman of the Houston-based Dr. Ronald E. McNair Education Science Literacy Foundation, one of several foundations that bear Ron’s name, does what her husband said he wanted to do after the Challenger mission, his last trip to space: teach.
The foundation puts on science camps and teacher workshops.
“That’s what I love to do is to inspire children,” Cheryl, a former teacher, said. “It’s something we both wanted to do.”
She said Ron, who had conversations with USC about a teaching position, wanted to return to South Carolina. After his first space flight, he visited schools and churches to encourage children and young adults to learn science and math, accepting almost every speaking offer. He continued his work in physics, and he and Cheryl had two children, Reginald and Joy.
“I used to wonder what kind of battery he had,” Cheryl said. “He was just always working fast. He was a super-motivated guy.”
Ron never got to return home.
Cheryl was at the Kennedy Space Center, watching with her children. Reginald, now 28 and a financial consultant living in Atlanta, and Joy, a 26-year-old law student at Georgetown University, were too young to remember the accident, Cheryl said.
In 25 years, she hasn’t watched a replay of the space shuttle breakup, by now viewed millions of times on YouTube. To remember, she doesn’t have to.
“You see your hopes and dreams were gone,” she said. “It’s a vision that just stays.”
Clyde Bess and T.R. Cooper, sitting in a Hardee’s restaurant, had their backs to Ron McNair Boulevard, the renamed stretch of U.S. 52 within the city limits of Lake City. Several timber trucks pass by, their tied-together tree trunks bouncing precariously.
Cooper, the former principal at Carver Elementary School, is the chairman of The Ron McNair Committee, which is organizing the anniversary of Ron’s death. There will be a parade and candlelight vigil Friday night. Saturday, there will be a banquet. And Dr. Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park will get a special addition.
Bess, the committee’s publicity chairman, went to high school with Ron, and they played in the band together. Ron playing his saxophone while weightlessly floating is an enduring image from his time in space. Bess thinks Ron, who was also an exceptional athlete in high school, was better at another instrument.
“Ron played clarinet before he played the saxophone,” said Bess, who also played clarinet. “And he did quite well with the clarinet, and I know because during concert season he had first chair.”
Cheryl still has that saxophone.
She’ll be here this weekend. So will Carl. Several hundred of Lake City’s residents who remember Ron are expected to be there, too, to celebrate with the people who knew him best.
Ron got to see the world from a view that few people have experienced. He knew that was special, but, Carl said, Ron felt there was so much more for him to do on the ground.
“Ron was a different animal,” he said. “Ron had a way of seeing the world differently. He was very curious about the world to start with.
“Being an astronaut didn’t define who he was, though it was a major accomplishment. Most of us thought he was going to do something greater.”