25 Years Later: A Story from Challenger

Yesterday was the 25 year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. It is most commonly known (at least around these parts) as the mission with the first teacher in space. Of course, there were also six other people on that mission and this post focuses on a story of one of those members, Ron McNair. Ron was a physicist and, an African-American member of the crew. He grew up in a small town in South Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Here is the story about Ron as told by his older brother, Carl:

“When he was 9 years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library,”

The library was public, Carl says — “but not so public for black folks, when you’re talking about 1959.”

“So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him — because they were white folk only — and they were looking at him and saying, you know, ‘Who is this Negro?’

“So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books.

“Well, this old librarian, she says, ‘This library is not for coloreds.’ He said, ‘Well, I would like to check out these books.’

“She says, ‘Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m gonna call the police.’

“So he just propped himself up on the counter, and sat there, and said, ‘I’ll wait.’ ”

The librarian called the police — and McNair’s mother, Pearl.

When the police got to the library, Carl says, “Two burly guys come in and say, ‘Well, where’s the disturbance?’

“And she pointed to the little 9-year-old boy sitting up on the counter.

“And he [the policeman] says, ‘Ma’am, what’s the problem?’

By then, the boys’ mother was on her way, Carl says.

“She comes down there praying the whole way there: ‘Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail.’ And my mother asks the librarian, ‘What’s the problem?’ ”

“He wanted to check out the books and, you know, your son shouldn’t be down here,” the librarian said, according to Carl.

“And the police officer said, ‘You know, why don’t you just give the kid the books?’

“And my mother said, ‘He’ll take good care of them.’ ”

So, the librarian reluctantly handed over the books. And then, Carl says, “my mother said, ‘What do you say?’

“And Ron answered, “Thank you, ma’am.”

Ron went on to read those books, receive a Doctorate from MIT and became an astronaut.

That’s part of what we lost on that day: People of uncommon intelligence, perseverance and courage like Ronald McNair.

A couple of footnotes:

My brother Bob sent me an email that had some info on air losses during WWII and one of the stats really jumped out at me. From the beginning of 1942 until the end of the war, America lost an average of 170 planes each day!

And, something that I did not realize: The crew on Challenger died on impact with the ocean, over 2 minutes after the accident.