Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ronald McNair, astronaut

It was announced today that several old, previously unpublished photos of the space shuttle Challenger disaster had been found and put online. I have always been interested in spaceflight and astronomy and STS-51-L - among other fateful flights - remains in my mind as a great engineering failure and terrible loss of brave astronauts and scientists, and a reminder of how modern technology sometimes fails us. Inspired by the surfaced photos, I took a new look at the Wikipedia article about the disaster.

The Challenger accident happened when I was only 8 years old. I remember looking at the famous group photo of the crew and thinking that they looked very "American": of the seven crew members only three were white men - there were also two women, one Japanese-American and one African-American man. Also, one of the women was not a career astronaut but a school teacher. In this sense, the crew looked very much like the United States I knew. I also thought Judith Resnik's large hairdo was very typical for Americans in the 1980s!

The crew of STS-51-L in November, 1985
Ellison Onizuka (in the photo the first from the left in the second row) was the first Asian American in space (he had flown to space before), and apparently also the first Buddhist. Christa McAuliffe was also probably the first astronaut of Lebanese roots.

Ronald McNair was the second African American in space (he had flown before, too), if Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba doesn't count. He would probably have been the third, if Robert Lawrence had not been killed in an aviation accident in 1967.

It turns out that my university (University of Illinois) has a minority student scholar program named after Ronald McNair. I did notice the familiar name when I visited the Turner Student Services Building the first time two years ago, but the people at the program office I talked to were not sure if it had been named after the astronaut or somebody else.

Dr. Ronald E. McNair, NASA astronaut
When I was a kid, I remember thinking that McNair looked very "American". In 1986, I had not yet met any non-white people but I recognized many African American politicians, athletes, actors and musicians. McNair's wide smile somehow reminded me of some people I knew, but I didn't research the crew's biographies much further. I did remember the smile, though.

Today, I read out the Wikipedia article about him and it looks like that he died younger than I am now - he was only 35 at the time of the Challenger disaster. He had received a PhD degree from MIT when he was 26, becoming a known expert in laser physics. By the time of his death, he already received three honorary doctorates. He was also the first astronaut of the Bahá'í faith, and quite possibly the first saxophonist in space. Jean-Michel Jarre's The Last Rendez-Vous (Ron's Piece) is dedicated to him - McNair was expected to record the solo for this track in space, and later perform it live at Jarre's concert in Houston in April, 1986.

In United States, there seems to be an obsession to name everything after famous people (military heroes, politicians, rich donors, astronauts). Often it feels unnecessary, sometimes even ridiculous, but sometimes it makes you think about and reflect on stories behind renowned, accomplished and exceptional individuals.

It's interesting to think that in 1986 I noticed McNair not because he seemed different but because in the diverse crew of STS-51-L, he did not seem different. The days of all-male, all-white and all-military crews of Gemini and Apollo programs were long gone - it was now time for all-American crews.

The shuttle flights resumed in 1989 and increasing international cooperation was notable in flight crews - astronauts from Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan and other countries flew on Shuttle flights before the program ended in 2011 - including the first (enrolled) member of an aboriginal tribe in space, John Herrington (of Chickasaw First Nation).

Sure, my observations of the STS-51-L crew in 1986 were somewhat naíve but I'm only happy that my belief (or hope) in space belonging to a more diverse group of travellers than just American and Soviet/Russian fighter pilots did become true.

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