Ronald McNair was an astronaut and physicist for NASA. When he flew as a mission specialist for the Challenger space shuttle in 1984, he became the second African-American to go to space. But his life was cut tragically short when he, along with his six fellow crew members, were killed when The Challenger Space Shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986. Ahead of the new Netflix documentary Challenger: The Final Flight, here’s what you need to know about the family he left behind and where they are today.
McNair Was Married and Had Two Children
McNair married his wife, Cheryl Moore, in 1976 when he was 25 years old, a decade before he would perish in the Challenger disaster. They had two children who were quite young when they lost their father — son Reginald, who was not quite 4 years old, and daughter Joy, who was just 18 months.
Following her husband’s death, Cheryl would go on to found the Challenger Center for Space Science Education alongside other surviving family members of the Challenger crew. Cheryl serves as its founding director.
She now lives in Houston, Texas. In March 2019, her home caught on fire while she was sleeping, but Cheryl was able to make it out and firefighters managed to save some of her late husband’s Challenger memorabilia and her cat, Rocket.
“Cheryl is such a wonderful, giving person, so I was really heartbroken to hear about the fire, but I’m most happy to know that she’s safe and well,” William Harris, president and CEO of Space Center Houston told KHOU after the fire, adding of the Challenger memorabilia, “These individuals were willing to give their lives for the advancement of science and learning in our society and so it’s important that we hold on to those items to remind ourselves of that. Some of them may not be restorable or whatnot but his name speaks well for itself.”
As for McNair’s children, son Reginald graduated from Florida A&M University with a degree in business administration and works in finance in Atlanta. Joy went to law school and is now a trust and estates attorney.
At a 2011 vigil in McNair’s hometown commemorating the Challenger explosion, Reginald told South Carolina Now that he was “excited to see” his father’s legacy continues to grow and Joy added, “It truly touches my heart to know that the Lake City community thinks so much of my father’s life and legacy, and the fact that they continue to keep it alive and honor him 25 years later is simply amazing.”
ANd in a 2012 interview with CNN, Joy said, “My mother has told me often that I was quite the daddy’s girl. I would run to his arms when he arrived from work every day.”
McNair Was Always Interested in Space
In a 1986 interview with Ebony magazine (via the Greensboro News & Record), a childhood friend said that McNair was obsessed with space — it was “all Ronald talked about.” And in the Netflix documentary, McNair can be heard in a voice-over saying, “Way back in high school, I had the thoughts of science and space, astronauts, etc. But you know, where I came from, that wasn’t the kind of thing a black kid thought about. How do you get to do something like that? What do you do?”
There is also a famous story about McNair that his wife recounted in the Netflix documentary, about when he went to a library that didn’t allow Black people to check out books. But he was not to be deterred.
“Ron was from a rural part of South Carolina. When he was in school, he went to the city library to check out a book. At that time, African-Americans were not allowed to check out books,” recalled Cheryl. “But he didn’t want to leave, there was quite a disturbance. The police came, his parents were called, and he said I just want to check a book out. Well, he did finally get the book. He said armed with preparation and armed with determination, he passed these obstacles.”
She also recalled how one day he came home from working at Hughes Research Laboratories and found an application to become an astronaut in their mailbox. He asked Cheryl what she thought and she said she thought he could do it — and the rest is history. McNair was one of 35 new astronauts chosen from 8000 applicants in 1978. He was one of three African-Americans selected.
A fellow classmate remembered him in the documentary thusly, “Ron McNair was relatively quiet, but he was extraordinarily skilled at karate. He was an accomplished saxophonist. Those were ways that Ron spoke out.”
Challenger: The Final Flight is out on Netflix now.