Dart Adams Remembers Challenger Astronaut Ronald McNair
Today is one of those days that we acknowledge the anniversary of a tragic event. 30 years ago today, many of us witnessed the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. While it was a national day of mourning it hit me and my community and Boston doubly hard as two of the seven astronauts had local ties. Christa McAuliffe was born in Boston and lived in Framingham, MA for the first 22 years of her life before moving to Maryland with her husband and Ronald McNair lived in Boston’s South End/Lower Roxbury neighborhood as he pursued his Ph.D in Physics from MIT in Cambridge, MA.
While Ronald McNair lived in Boston he also taught the young people of the South End and Roxbury karate as he was an accomplished martial artist himself. He was a black belt who was an accomplished competitive martial artist as well as an instructor. In 1976, he even won an AAU Karate gold medal in Joplin, MO after graduating from MIT. Ronald McNair was the stuff of legend to me as a child. I heard about him sitting in and playing his saxophone during sets at legendary Jazz club Wally’s in my neighborhood. I heard about his scientific mind and that he was a pioneer in laser technology at nearby MIT in addition to being an accomplished thinker/philosopher, public speaker/lecturer, scientist, musician & a martial artist.
In 1978, he was chosen to be an astronaut candidate by NASA where he spent a year training alongside Guion Bluford and Frederick Gregory who would become the first Black astronauts in space. Guion Bluford went up first in 1983 and Ronald McNair became the second Black astronaut in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger the following year. Ronald McNair was a tremendous inspiration to the children of the South End and Roxbury because he achieved the kind of things I’d only read about being in the resumes of comic book characters. When you read a list of his accomplishments by age 35 they read like the bio of either Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Henry Pym, Hank McCoy, Reed Richards or T’Challa of Wakanda. The craziest part was he was a real life human being. The kids that he taught martial arts to would tell stories about him for years after the fact. We’d see articles that were cut out of the newspaper about him at area schools as I was growing up. He was one of the Black faces I’d see pinned up on the wall every Black History Month as a youngster which was even more amazing as he was the same age as our parents and teachers. “If you work hard and believe in your dreams you can become the next Ronald McNair!” was the message that was relayed to us. I was in 5 th grade the day I was told that one of the shining examples that we young people should aspired to died. Not by street violence but pursuing his dream of space exploration that he first dreamed of as a teenager in South Carolina watching “Star Trek” with his brothers.
My perspective on Ronald McNair’s passing is different from most as I’m typing this from the apartment Ron McNair shared with one of his brothers in Methunion Manor located in Boston’s South End. It’s been 40 years since he lived here but I still hear stories about him to this very day. When I ventured over the Mass. Ave bridge to MIT’s campus to do my radio show I often found myself in Central Square afterwards near the Ronald McNair Building which houses the Center For Space Research. In 2005, MIT’s partnership with NASA resulted in the creation of the Ronald E. McNair NASA Visiting Professorship In Astronautics At MIT teaching and research position. When I go back home, there are several people in my neighborhood that remember how inspirational he was and how he always encouraged young people to pursue and achieve their dreams no matter how out of reach they might seem. Ronald McNair is yet another famous Black achiever who lived in my neighborhood just like Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones, Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and many others before him who locals fondly remember and trade stories about but you never see their time in Boston mentioned anywhere else. I’ve had several discussions about Ronald McNair with people from all over and they’re always astounded by my knowledge of his life & career until I explain to them that my room in my apartment was once his. As if I needed any more inspiration to achieve my life goals. I always must keep in mind that nothing is impossible if a boy from Lake City, SC can become one of the first Black people in space.