When an American both overcomes immense hardships to become an esteemed scientist and dies in service to his country, it is only right that his achievements and sacrifice be honored. Carl S. McNair, older brother to Dr. Ronald McNair, completely fulfills this obligation in In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair- Astronaut: An American Hero. Ronald McNair, on board as a mission specialist, died in the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, in 1986. In no uncertain terms, the book is a loving tribute to his brother’s brilliance, determination, personal qualities, and limitless ambition to learn for the betterment of himself and humanity.
Carl McNair’s presentation of his brother’s life is inspiring. At the same time, however, it may be read as too influenced by family feeling, if only because the praise of the physicist and astronaut is relentless. Dr. McNair most definitely deserves recognition for his accomplishments but, as in any true story, an excess emphasis on admiration often defeats the real honor the subject merits.
From the book’s beginning, author McNair sets the tone dominating the narrative. The family was poor, but Ronald McNair refused, even as a child, to allow accidents or poverty weaken his spirit. When, for example, he suffered a serious knee injury, he explored it as a means of learning, and excitedly shared the new knowledge with Carl: “He…pointed out to me the muscles and ligaments…He explained how everything fit together” (McNair, 2012, p. 11). To the author’s credit, his memories of his brother are consistently supported by pieces of conversations they had, and there is the strong sense that McNair is in fact telling the story truthfully.
Some doubt within Ronald is also related, as when the brothers were admitted to the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University (A&T). While having been valedictorian at their high school, Ronald, determined to study physics, was intimidated by the greater learning of his fellow students: “The big city schools had offered a much better grounding in physics and these students were far ahead of Ron” (p. 74). Even this discouragement, however, is in place only to emphasize how nothing stopped Dr. McNair’s pursuit of knowledge and excellence. When attending MIT, he experienced both racism and extremely challenging instruction but, by the age of twenty-six, he earned his PhD in laser physics (p. 105). Here, and throughout the book, McNair consistently relates the facts of his brother’s efforts and successes, with an equally consistent and loving admiration for him.
The death of McNair in the Challenger tragedy was, of course, an inestimable loss in many ways. There is no escaping the reality that this was a man who never failed to do his best, to overcome significant obstacles, gain knowledge, and be of service to science and his country. Any such person is rightly regarded as heroic, and it is important that the world know Dr. McNair’s story. At the same time, however, his brother’s work would have been enhanced by even a minimal reference to the weaknesses within all human beings. Carl McNair simply holds to only praise, even in regard to the doctor’s spiritualty: “In Ron’s mind, no conflict separated science from faith” (p. 154). There is nothing wrong with a man’s ambition to pay tribute to a dead brother who lived an exceptional life. Nonetheless, the impact would be more meaningful if the admiration were not so relentlessly expressed. Dr. McNair most definitely merits praise, but he also deserves to be honored in a less enthusiastic way, and if only because the excessive tribute from Carl McNair is just too extreme, and may easily lead the reader to question how much brotherly love has influenced what should be the story of a real, and genuinely great, human being.
- McNair, C. S. (2012). In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair- Astronaut: An American Hero. Atlanta, GA: MAP Publishing.