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Astronaut, saxophonist, and karate black belt Ron McNair overcame an impoverished childhood in segregated Lake City, South Carolina to earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and become one of NASA’s first Black astronauts. Although Ron’s path to NASA was nearly derailed because of systematic racism and inequality, he found inspiration in the Black leaders around him and persevered. Tragically, Ron’s life was cut short when he died in the Challenger disaster. But his legacy lives on. In this excerpt from The New Guys by Meredith Bagby, we see how McNair stepped away from a promising career as a laser physicist for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be an astronaut. Even though the world told him to play small, Ron was always taking risks and betting on himself. And he challenged others to do the same.
Malibu, California. Spring 1977
“What do you mean, you’re going to be an astronaut?” Carl McNair pressed the phone against his ear to make sure he heard his brother Ron correctly.