Do you remember where you were 25 years ago today?

Ronald McNair, NASA Astronaut, died in Challen...

Astronaut Ron McNair (Image via Wikipedia)

I was folding laundry when a friend called to tell me the news. The space shuttle Challenger had exploded seconds after liftoff. Another friend remembers hearing the last words spoken: “Go with throttle up.” The event became a defining moment in American history; the image of the shattered space craft, iconic.

Such moments become markers in our lives. We remember them. We honor those we lost — as we do today on the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. But there was a subtext to the Challenger’s flight that day — one that framed for a moment in time a change in America.

This morning National Public Radio aired an interview with Carl McNair whose brother Astronaut Ronald McNair was aboard the ill-fated Challenger. He told a wonderful story about Ron McNair who as a child watched the television series Star Trek, where the crew aboard the Starship Enterprise was black and Asian and white and men and women and, well, Vulcan. While he watched Star Trek, young Ron McNair dreamed.

For a black child growing up during the 1950s and 1960s in South Carolina, however, it was a big dream, one that might have seemed impossible. As a 9-year-old Ron McNair got a taste of the challenges on a trip to his local library — the white library — where he asked to check out a book. He was denied. The police were called. Still Ron McNair dreamed and worked. He eventually earned a doctor of philosophy in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked to become an astronaut, not aboard the Starship Enterprise, but aboard the Challenger, part of a crew that was black and Asian and white and men and women.

Back in the 1950s colleges and universities were a lot like South Carolina’s public library. Not everyone was welcome. That’s not true anymore. Colleges and universities now reflect that Starship Enterprise crew that Ron McNair watched. Students come from every corner of the globe, from every kind of ethnic and cultural background. They come together and they work and they dream.

So while you remember the Challenger tragedy, today, remember also the Challenger’s victory. The diverse crew was the new, improved America. And we are all better for the change they represented.

When the Challenger lifted off, though destined for tragedy, it is a reminder of how far we’ve come.

To find out what happened to young Ron McNair when he went to the library — and if he got his book — read or listen to the entire NPR interview with Carl McNair here:

You can also read about the late Elizabeth Gauldin (’50), another veteran of the United States space program.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to Do you remember where you were 25 years ago today?

  1. shellhite says:

    I remember exactly walking out of the Warren Campus Center and everyone was just stunned. My friend Susan Gladstone (’88) ran up to me and told me what happened to the shuttle. It was a cold, quiet, stunned walk to Huffman Hall. Everyone was stunned and in a daze, but I remember other students reaching out to each other and hugging and just “being there” for each other. I also remember my professors — Tony Eksterowicz and Paul Cline — who were very comforting to us. They taught us more than political science that day and that week. Conversations varied from humanity to science, from to peace to being the change and being there for each other.
    Thank God for places like JMU and for professors like Dr. Eksterowicz and Dr. Cline.
    — Michelle (’88)


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