Brother devotes self to Challenger astronaut's legacy

Twenty-five years ago, Atlantan Carl McNair froze in front of his TV, fixated in horror as the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated over Florida’s Atlantic coast, just 73 seconds after launching from Cape Canaveral.

On board was his brother Ronald McNair, just 10 months his junior. He perished along with six others. “It was the worst day of my life,” Carl McNair said. “It changed everything.”

McNair, 61, will join millions of Americans who will pause around 11:38 a.m. Friday in remembrance of a space shuttle disaster that shocked the world.

McNair has devoted his career to his brother’s legacy, creating the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation and the McNair Achievement Programs, both based in Atlanta and both intended to encourage African-American students to go into math and science fields.

“It’s important to me, because my brother was my hero,” McNair said. “I want people to know that he wasn’t just an astronaut but an African-American astronaut who made great achievements, despite growing up in the segregated South.”

The McNair Foundation and Achievement Programs help fund McNair Space and Science Camps across the U.S., as well as numerous other programs. Among them is the McNair Scholars, an internship program that helps to pay stipends for undergraduate students studying science at various colleges. About 50 Challenger Learning Centers across the U.S. also are supported by the foundation.

Scott Norman, director of the center at Columbus State University, said that about 5,000 students, mostly middle schoolers, participate in its programs each year. The learning centers have mock-ups of spaceships and control rooms, with simulator stations for at least 18 children to go through the paces of a routine launch to space.

“The idea is to engage children in problem solving with math, science and engineering,” he said.

The center at CSU expects to honor the astronauts at noon Friday with a keynote speech from Apollo 15 astronaut Alfred Worden, who flew a space capsule to the moon in 1971.

Carl McNair said Ron was always smarter, more driven than he was.

“We grew up poor in Lake City, S.C.,” he said. “Ron once said he wanted to be a scientist, like on ‘Star Trek.’ I said, yeah, right, and I want to be [the] pope.”

Both went to North Carolina A&T State University. While Carl said he began without much direction, Ron decided right away that he wanted to study physics. Ron then went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ron McNair became an expert in laser physics. On the fatal flight into space, he was to conduct experiments with cancer cells in zero gravity — hoping to help someday find a cure. And he was to play the first saxophone solo in space.

But that solo — the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic “What the World Needs Now Is Love” — was never recorded.

Carl wasn’t there in person to see the 1986 launch. His brother told him several days earlier that the weather looked too bad for liftoff. But the flight went ahead, despite the frigid weather.

A sealing gasket called an O-ring on the shuttle’s right solid rocket launcher had shrunk in the 36-degree weather. That allowed superheated gases to escape and cause the disaster.

At the time, shuttle flights had become almost so routine that some news photographers at the launch had started packing their gear shortly after liftoff. Then the vessel exploded.

Killed along with McNair were teacher Christa McAuliffe and astronauts Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik.

The disaster postponed President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address for a full week. When he finally took the podium, he made the astronauts’ aspirations for a better future a pillar of his speech.

Daniel Barstow, the director of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education based in Arlington, Va., said that it’s one of the few moments in a generation that everyone remembers.

“At the time, I was an elementary school teacher, and we were getting ready to talk to the students about the launch when the principal made the announcement,” he said. “We were all sad, shocked.”

For Carl McNair, the event changed his life in a flash.

“I wanted to do something that would honor my brother and the other astronauts and to encourage others to follow in his footsteps,” he said.

Carl McNair will be in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday at the college he attended with his brother.

Earlier in the week, McNair said that he wasn’t sure what he was going to say. But he said he feels he needs to keep talking to students.

“I wish he was still here, conducting experiments, and I could just hear his accolades,” Carl McNair said. “But he’s not, so I have to just go out there and sow the seeds for others to follow.”