Challenger Astronaut Ronald E. McNair's Legacy Honored

25 years after explosion, African-American physicist is honored in hometown.

ByABC News
January 29, 2011, 3:58 PM

Jan. 29, 2011— -- Twenty five years ago the nation watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the air, creating a massive fireball just 73 seconds after launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The tragedy shook the entire world and prompted NASA to evaluate its shuttle program and review the future of space travel.

All seven astronauts on board were killed. Among the crew members was Ronald E. McNair.

A physicist recognized nationally for his work in the field of laser physics who was also notable for being the second African American to fly in space, McNair broke barriers since his childhood in the small community of Lake City, South Carolina. He grew up in the farming town that's located about 90 miles north of Charleston.

"We all knew he was exceptional, but we didn't really know how exceptional until later," said Clyde Bess, who attended the same segregated black high school as McNair.

In 1959, when McNair was just 9 years old, he famously made a scene at the Lake City Public Library. Residents stared the African American boy down and watched as he walked to the main counter and attempted to check out books on advanced science and calculus.

The librarian refused to release them and told him, "We don't circulate books to Negroes."

The passionate young man wouldn't budge, and instead hoisted himself onto the counter and said he wasn't leaving without the books. Library patrons laughed as McNair's feet dangled off the counter while he waited and the librarian called police.

Two police officers arrived at the scene along with McNair's mother, Pearl. They determined the boy was not causing any public disturbance and Pearl convinced the librarian she'd pay for the books if they were not returned. The librarian gave in.

Today, more than 20 schools around the country, several monuments, and the main highway through the town of Lake City are named after Ronald McNair.

"To come from a place that was that tiny, that was that poverty stricken and to still have achieved -- the sky's the limit. You do not let your social surroundings hold you back," said Verlie Tisdale, a high school classmate and now dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Clafin University.