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This Week in MIT History

By Aaron Mihalik

Associate Features Editor

During the first week of December in 1986 Ronald E. McNair PhD ’76, one of the seven members of the ill-fated Challenger mission, was honored with a daylong symposium on Friday, December 5th. The symposium was spent by McNair’s friends and MIT administrations discussing the accomplishments of the astronaut.

Cheryl M. McNair, Ronald McNair’s widow, presented then MIT President Paul E. Gray ’54 and the Institute with the ‘T’ patch, representing for MIT, which McNair took aboard Challenger. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration found the patch in the space shuttle wreckage and had returned it to McNair’s family.

Also at the symposium, Building 37, home to the Center for Space Research and part of the aeronautics and astronautics department, was dedicated to McNair .

Michael S. Feld ’63, McNair’s thesis advisor and director of the Spectroscopy Laboratory, noted that the dedication of an MIT building is rare. “The greatest of care is taken ... some are named for great scientists, some for great leaders, only a handful are named after our sons and daughters. Ronald McNair’s essence is being transformed into something permanent.”

McNair received his doctorate in physics and later joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s mission specialist program in 1978. In addition to his contributions to laser research, McNair was also an accomplished saxophone player, a karate expert, and a dedicated father, Feld explained.

It is these qualities -- technical accomplishment, social contribution, and personal fulfillment -- that MIT hopes to instill in others, Feld said.

In the lobby of Building 37, there is an engraving to signify the dedication. The inscription on the engraving is a quote of McNair and reads:

My wish is that we would allow this planet to be the beautiful oasis that she is and allow ourselves to live more in the peace that she generates.

Cheryl McNair summarized, “The consideration and respect it took to motivate an entire community to come together to do just such a dedication” is very special. Her husband would have been honored, she said.

On January 28, 1986, the Challenger took off in the freezing morning air at Kennedy Space Center. Seventy three seconds into flight, Challenger exploded, killing all seven of its crew.