Program recognizes Challenger astronaut McNair's widow speaks to barrier-breaking college students

For Immediate Release
April 14, 2001

By Loretta Fulton
Reporter-News Staff Writer

The name of Cheryl McNair's late husband was attached to a new federal program in 1989, not because of achievements in space, but for what he stood for.

"They thought he had such exemplary character," McNair said of her husband, Dr. Ronald E. McNair, who was killed along with six other crewmen in the Challenger space shuttle explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.

In 1989, the McNair Scholars Program was created by Congress to help first-generation, low-income and under-represented students attend graduate school.

Cheryl McNair was guest speaker Thursday night for the annual McNair Scholars Program banquet at Abilene Christian University, one of 157 universities in the nation and 14 in Texas to sponsor the program.

Ronald McNair was one of the first three blacks chosen for NASA's astronaut training program in 1978 and was the second black in space. He had made one trip on the Challenger prior to the fatal launch.

In an interview, Cheryl McNair said her husband, who held a black belt in karate, often spoke to students about the importance of mental and physical training.

"He wanted to inspire and motivate youth," she said.

So it didn't come as too much of a surprise when she received a phone call in 1987 from Sen. Strom Thurmond asking permission to attach her late husband's name to the new program. Ronald McNair was a first-generation college graduate, earning a bachelor's degree in physics at North Carolina A&T State University, and later a doctorate in physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ronald McNair grew up in Lake City, S.C., and attended segregated public schools.

He excelled in academics and athletics and wanted others to do the same, his wife said.

He was doing research at Hughes Research Laboratories in California when he received a call inviting him to apply for astronaut training. Six years later, he took his first flight into space.

"He said it was just fantastic," Cheryl McNair said. "It was just a wonderful, exciting adventure."

McNair said that if her husband had lived, his dream today would be to man the international space station. She recalled his description of Earth from the window of Challenger during his first mission.

"It looked like a beautiful oasis without any lines or divisions," her husband had said. "It was just a mixture of colors like God wanted."

Since the death of the Challenger crew, the spouses formed the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, with hands-on activities in 46 centers in the United States, England and Canada.

That educational enterprise plus having his named attached to the McNair Scholars Program would make her husband most proud, McNair said.

ACU currently has 29 McNair Scholars, said program director Gordon Dowell. Students must have 60 hours of college credits before applying. They must be either a first-generation college student and low income or come from groups under-represented in graduate schools nationwide.

McNair Scholars must attend conferences and workshops and conduct a summer research project. ACU has had a McNair Scholars Program since 1995.

Cheryl McNair travels the country speaking to the participants and telling them of how proud her husband would be of their accomplishments.

"It's a good thing to see that his life has inspired people in such a positive way," she said.

Contact higher education writer Loretta Fulton at 676-6778 or


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