A&T Student Space Shuttle Program Alumni & Faculty Remember McNairBy Chantelle Grady, Peacemaker Contributor & Afrique Kilimanjaro, Editor
Published: January 30, 2013
Monday marked 27 years since the tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger, and all seven astronauts aboard, including NC A&T State University alumnus Dr. Ronald E. McNair.
Every year NC A&T commemorates the anniversary with a program to celebrate McNair’s noteworthy life. Keynote speaker for the breakfast prior to the McNair Symposium was A&T alumnus and Student Space Shuttle Program (SSSP) participant, Franklin Hooker (’84 B.S. & ’87 M.S. Electrical Engineering). Several A&T alumni who participated as student researchers in the program were also in attendance and reminisced about their experiences. Hooker joined the student research team in 1983.
He explained the two experiments which were on the A&T payload. The first was designed to grow crystals in zero gravity and the second, a biology experiment, explored the development of milkweed bugs in zero gravity.
NASA provided such opportunities to colleges and universities in order to inspire young people to explore the vast field of scientific research. NASA called such payloads – Get Away Specials (GAS) and it proved to be very popular.
At a nearby table, former SSSP members and A&T alumni Jonathan Hampton (‘’86 EE) & Kelvin Brooks (’85 EE) recalled their experiences working with now retired A&T physics professor, Dr. Stuart Ahrens, who attended the breakfast along with his family. Ahrens coordinated the project across disciplines and served as research advisor.
“I remember spending many late nights in the lab working on the electrical components of the payload,” recalled Hampton. “Since then, the technology has really changed. Back then, we had two computers. I worked on an Apple. There was no such thing as PowerPoint. Everything was done by hand. No computer simulations.” Kelvin Brooks added, “We were never in the dorm. We were either in the engineering building or in the physics lab.” Both recounted learning to drink coffee. “Dr. Ahrens loved coffee and kept a board of coffee mugs in the lab where everyone could bring a mug and hang it there.”
Ahrens revealed to the former participants that plans are underway to place the payload with additional artifacts on permanent display in the new Student Classroom Building on the A&T campus.
Before Dr. McNair became a member of NASA, lost on that fateful winter’s morning, January 28, 1986, he was a proud Aggie alumnus who gave back to his alma mater. One can get a sense of the kind of person McNair was, by listening to the bittersweet recollections of those who knew him as a student at A&T. From his former instructors, to fellow students and friends, McNair is remembered fondly as one who did not give up. He didn’t allow circumstances to dictate his life.
Ron McNair earned his undergraduate degree in physics. Dr. Tom Sandin advised McNair during his studies at N.C. A&T. Now retired from the A&T physics department, Sandin still teaches part-time and tells his students about McNair. The two developed a close working relationship, and remained in touch after McNair graduated. Dr. Sandin shared some of his thoughts of his former pupil-turned-friend. “I thought he was just…he was an excellent student. But it wasn’t just that- (it was) his attitude,” Dr. Sandin said. “He (McNair) was not someone who ever fell into that ego trap.” He also pointed out that McNair had a good sense of self-worth, “but not to the point he was conceited.”
Dr. Sandin revealed that Ron McNair struggled with his studies after coming to the university. “In those early days, he didn’t get the highest grades. He was able to determine where he wanted to go, and find the path to get there.” McNair completed his work at A&T, and went on to earn a Ph.D. from MIT- specializing in laser physics. Dr. Sandin said that
McNair’s success was about more than intelligence, it was about perseverance. That perseverance came in handy when, as a graduate student at MIT, McNair was faced with adversity. The notebook containing all of his research was stolen, and McNair had to start his work over from scratch…and memory. He succeeded, and that showed his penchant for overcoming obstacles. That attitude would help him throughout his life and career.
Ron McNair wasn’t just about the books, however. He was an accomplished musician, and played the saxophone. He was even allowed to take a miniature sax on his first voyage into space in 1984. Besides music, he was very interested in martial arts. McNair studied karate, earning a black belt, and competed with a group of fellow enthusiasts he met at A&T. The students traveled together for competitions. Although segregation was ending, the group still faced some resistance when they would compete. Two of McNair’s teammates were classmate and retired A&T math professor, Dr. Gilbert Casterlow, and retired Guilford County judge Lawrence McSwain.
Casterlow and McNair were sparring partners when the group would practice karate in the old Holt Hall gym on A&T’s campus. The team would compete in tournaments from New York to Atlanta. “We were typically the only minority group in those tournaments,” Casterlow said about the experience. They competed in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Casterlow’s wife, Patricia Vaughn Casterlow, was also a member of the team. They recounted how McNair led their team to keep going- even when faced with resistance.
The group eventually organized their own tournament on A&T’s campus. “We looked at karate as a way of life,” Casterlow said, “Ron became my mentor, so-to-speak.”
McNair believed in having dreams and pursuing them. “He was not a quitter,” Pat Casterlow said. “He was a trailblazer, and quitting was not an option. He always put his best foot forward.” The couple quoted a saying of McNair’s: “Before you can make a dream come true, you must first have one.” That message would be one Dr. McNair shared with others, especially school children, until the end of his life.
Lawrence McSwain echoed the Casterlows’ thoughts on McNair. He reminisced, “All of us were talking about,” (trying to go somewhere in life). “You had to take chances if you want to succeed.” McSwain said that McNair wasn’t afraid to fail, and because of it, he succeeded more times than not. Their karate team consisted of achievers, and they motivated one another.
While he lived in Houston, as a member of the space program, McNair taught karate to area children, primarily those from lower-income backgrounds. “He hoped that he could motivate them to strive to do better,” McSwain said.
McNair gave back to A&T by offering his support and encouragement to the university’s space program. Over a 15 year period, more than 130 students across various disciplines conducted research with the program.
Dr. Ahrens described the efforts the university made to make the project, championed by McNair, successful.
“I did write a letter or call Ron at the time,” Dr. Ahrens remembered, “he thought it was a great idea that A&T was getting involved with NASA.” The goal was to put a payload aboard the space shuttle containing two experiments – projects conceived and developed by A&T students.
“It took us 14 years…longer than I expected,” Dr. Ahrens said to design, build, test and get NASA’s approval for flight, “Which is not easy.” The A&T payload eventually went up on the shuttle Endeavour. McNair’s widow, Cheryl, was in attendance to support the project.
During the project’s first six years, Ron McNair would return to campus annually to visit with students and learn of their progress, which Dr. Ahrens said, was a great motivational tool. They were able to rub elbows with an astronaut, who was also an alumnus. He could give valuable feedback and say what wouldn’t work. Dr. Ahrens appreciated McNair and “his compassion for the students. He showed patience. He was a great motivator, and was a true inspiration. He never forgot A&T.” Ahrens said that the students loved Dr. McNair and that he “was always humble. He didn’t wear success on his sleeve.”
On one campus visit, McNair gave a speech in Moore gymnasium. The main theme was, “You’re good enough.” It was something McNair was told in those early days when he struggled to find his way, in the A&T Physics Department. He told the students not to let anyone tell them they weren’t good enough, and that “The sky’s the limit.” And no one knew that better than Ron McNair.