Greater heights: Video recalls shuttle victim who touched the stars

She was hot. They were smitten. When Nichelle Nichols filled the screen on their family TV, Carl and Ronald McNair stopped whatever they were doing to admire the actress who portrayed Lt. Uhura in those long-ago episodes of “Star Trek.”

Something they liked even more than Uhura’s languid eyes and killer figure: her role on the starship Enterprise. An African-American woman, Uhura held a position of responsibility. Among her white and Asian peers, she was an equal.

For a couple of black kids living in Lake City, S.C., in the 1960s, having a job like that would be reaching for the stars.

And that’s what Ronald did. A skinny youngster from South Carolina, he grew up to become an astronaut.

His life will be celebrated online today when StoryCorps releases “Eyes on the Stars,” an animated video showcasing a couple of formative incidents in the astronaut’s life. The 3-minute, 17-second clip features Atlanta resident Carl McNair’s recollections about his brother.

 The Fernbank Science Center also plans to showcase the clip in a tribute to the astronaut on Feb. 2.

The release is timed to coincide with the 27th anniversary of Ronald McNair’s last flight. On Jan. 28, 1986, he and six others were aboard the space shuttle Challenger when the vessel exploded little more than a minute after taking off. Ronald McNair, who’d been on other shuttle flights, planned to give up space after that mission to teach physics at the University of South Carolina.

“He wanted to show people, to say, ‘If a country boy like me could do it, you could do it, too,’ ” said Carl McNair, who wrote “In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair – Astronaut: An American Hero.” A motivational speaker, Carl McNair also is the founder of the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Foundation, which encourages students to pursue careers in science, math and technology.

The brothers grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, when color lines in their hometown and elsewhere across the South were as understood as the lanes on a highway. Some barriers you did not cross.

But Ronald did. In 1959, he walked to the public library and selected some math and physics books. He got as far as the check-out desk, where an older white woman stared down as the presumptuous black kid. When he asked to check them out, she said no: It was a whites-only library.

You cannot check them out, she insisted. He persisted.

“Young man,” the exasperated librarian said, “if you don’t get out of here, I’ll call the police.”

Ronald sat on her desk. “I’ll wait,” he answered.

The cops came, took one look at the kid, another at the librarian, and rolled their eyes. Young Ronald went home with the books.

The memory still makes his brother chuckle. Ronald, said Carl McNair, employed a tactic that would serve future civil rights activists well. “It’s a little-known fact,” he said. “Ronald started the sit-in movement!”

That decades-old encounter is captured in the StoryCorps animated clip. The organization, based in New York, has conducted more than 45,000 interviews over the past decade. Each is preserved at the Library of Congress. A few, like Carl McNair’s memories of his brother, have been rendered into animation, said Jeremy Helton, a spokesperson for StoryCorps.

“That’s what’s so remarkable about Ronald McNair,” Helton said. Raised in a small town in central South Carolina, he went on to get a doctorate in physics, Helton noted.

“The animation … shows that people can aspire to something through hard work and determination.”

The stories also create memories. For Carl McNair, the animated account of his brother is a reminder of times when two boys dreamed of greater things, of a world beyond the one they knew.

When a character on TV prompted one boy to seek the stars. And he did.

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