Ronald E. McNair, 35, was a symbol of accomplishment for the small, rural town of Lake City, S.C., where he grew up picking tobacco to earn pocket money and returned a local hero after his first space shuttle flight in February 1984.
The main road through Lake City, population 6,800, was renamed in McNair's honor and photographs taken of him in space were hung in the Town Hall and in local schools. His accomplishments as the second black American in space became a source of inspiration for local blacks, many of whom, like McNair, had attended segregated schools.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former college classmate of McNair's, said yesterday that McNair "saw that being a part of this NASA program was the highest way he could contribute to this sytem that gave him so much. He saw himself as a scientist and he knew it was a high risk."
McNair, who earned a doctorate in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a specialist in laser technology, was born Oct. 12, 1950, in Lake City, about 60 miles west of Myrtle Beach. His father worked as an auto body repairman, and his mother taught elementary school.
One of his former teachers, Rosa Conners, said McNair first showed an interest in flying when he was in her seventh grade science class. An exceptional student, he was valedictorian of his high school class among classmates who rarely considered going to college.
McNair received a grant to attend North Carolina A&T State University and earned a bachelor's degree in physics there. He found science studies at MIT a struggle, but later exhorted black students to persevere.
"You may not come from affluent social and educational backgrounds and you may not be on the dean's list," McNair told one conference of minority college students. "In the final analysis, success doesn't depend on shades of complexion, but on the depth of your preparaton and motivation."
In 1976, McNair became a staff physicist with the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, Calif., where he worked on developing new uses for lasers. NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate two years later, prompting officials in Lake City to name him grand marshal of the town's Tobacco Festival.
He is survived by his wife Cheryl, who teaches computer operations to flight controllers at Johnson Space Center; a son, Reginald, 3, and a daughter, Joy Cheray, 1; his parents, Carl C. and Pearl, and two brothers.