Joy McNair has a wonderful memory of herself as a toddler running toward her astronaut father as he returns home. But it's not her memory. She borrowed it from someone else.
"My mother has told me often that I was quite the daddy's girl," McNair said on the phone Monday. "I would run to his arms when he arrived from work every day."
But beyond that, her memories are murky.
Joy was just 18 months old in 1986 when the unthinkable happened and the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. Her father, astronaut Ronald McNair, and his six colleagues lost their lives, prompting President Reagan to call them true American heroes.
Now a 27-year-old Washington-based attorney, Joy experiences Father's Day very much like any other day.
"I've never had Father's Day to celebrate. So in a weird way it's not something that I feel a loss for."
What Joy McNair knows about her astronaut father comes from family stories and the media.
For countless people who lost their dads before they had a chance to know them, Father's Day can force a confrontation with lingering questions and memory gaps. When the loss is part of a public event, when the world remembers your father in some ways better than you do yourself, the search to truly know your father can become a lifelong quest.
History knows Ronald McNair as a top physicist and the second African-American to fly in space. Joy got to know her father through the personal stories shared by family and friends. The storytelling started before she can even remember.
"I just always remember knowing," she said.
Her father was curious. As a first grader, he talked so much about the then-orbiting Soviet Sputnik satellite he gained the nickname "Gizmo."
He was tenacious. As a student at MIT, a mugger robbed McNair, stealing a case containing laser physics data that had taken him two years to gather. He went to work and painstakingly recreated that data within a year.
He was confident. When he announced that he was going to be an astronaut, McNair's brother asked why he was so sure he'd be accepted. "Because I applied," Ronald joked.
NASA proved him right. McNair made history as one of a handful of astronauts selected from thousands of applicants.
Ronald McNair was among seven astronauts who died in the 1986 explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger.
A father like that might prove to be a daunting figure for any child, with the potential to assume almost mythical status.
But Joy McNair set out to be her own woman.
"I've made it a point to not live in his shadow and to try to build a legacy of my own and make my own contributions to society. So we have similar characteristics but our delivery might be different."
Recently Joy stumbled upon a published interview with her father. "I was just stunned by some of the things that I read," she said.
The article revealed that her father had developed a study method during high school that was identical to her own. She was astonished to learn that he went through a grad school "adjustment period" before eventually finding his way and excelling, just as Joy did during law school.
Ronald McNair had written and achieved a 10-year life-plan that culminated at age 28 with his Ph.D. in physics. This fascinated Joy because she had been writing five- and 10-year life plans "as long as I can remember."
Just a few weeks ago she finished her 10-year academic plan to earn a bachelor's degree, a law degree and a master's in law. Joy couldn't help but notice she had completed her plan by age 28. Just like her dad.
Despite all the connections and similarities, Joy didn't share her father's desire to make music. The astronaut was also a performing saxophone player - and, according to NASA - the first person to play the instrument in space.
"I'm interested in music, but I don't play a musical instrument," Joy said. Her brother, however, "dabbles" with the saxophone. Reginald still has his dad's sax and plays it sometimes, she said.
Joy said she didn't really know her life was different "until later on in life when people would ask the various questions."
Referring to the tragedy as "the accident," she said she and other children of the Challenger crew have talked often with each other about what they remember about their parents, and what they don't remember.
Related story: New Challenger video surfaces
Psychiatrists say the human body and brain "remember" the stress of being separated from a parent, even at the very young age of 18 months. But the outcome differs for everyone.
"Some people rise to greatness from adversity," said CNN consultant and psychiatrist Dr. Charles Raison. "If the death of a father is eased by the child's environment, and the father is honored and remembered and loved and becomes sort of an icon to the growing child, there's going to be a lot less damage."
That was Joy's experience. She and her brother got support from their mother and grandparents, who nurtured them to be resilient, independent and to follow their hearts.
"My mother was very good at giving us a stable life," she said.
Related story: Challenger widow reflects on final shuttle flight
Together with the rest of the family, Reginald and Joy work to maintain their father's legacy by supporting his educational foundation. Also, hundreds of Ronald McNair scholarship programs nationwide help students who are the first generation of their family to attend college. The program mentors them toward degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.
Joy, her father and her brother Reginald McNair spend time together in this undated family photo.
During her recent master's graduation ceremony at Georgetown Law in Washington, Joy took comfort when Reginald reminded her how proud their father would have been. Joy and her brother are close. They talk about their father "lately more so than ever," she said.
And even now, 26 years later, Joy senses her father's presence.
"I feel a sense of oneness with him - like I really do know him, like he's a part of me and I'm a part of him." When she looks at certain photos of her father, "I even see myself staring back at times.
She's a bright young lady with a great future. Her dad would be very proud. You go girl!
Would you have said, "You go girl!" if she weren't black? I find that comical.
Ron was the only astronaut I ever met, and was extremely friendly & personable! True hero & great American.
Thank-you for sharing your experience. Many years later, this is still a tragic story.
I was an Engineering Student with Ron at NC A&T. He was indeed a special person. He also performed Black Belt Karate demonstrations at college sporting events. I especially remember when we traveled to Tallahassee to a football game in the "Green Goose" (my car). The bust of him at the Engineering Building named for him at NC A&T is a good likeness. I know he would be proud of his family. And yes Joy, you look a lot like your daddy.
He sounds like a real Uncle Tom.
HIS NAME WAS REGINALD MACNAIR, YOU FOOL, YOU SOUND LIKE A RACIST TO ME. MR. MCNAIR WAS A SPACE HERO AND A GREAT HUMAN BEING, AS EQUAL TO YOU AS A HUMAN, BUT FAR BETTER THAN YOU, CREEP! YOU ARE AN IRISH OR GERMAN HITLER YOURSELF ! :)
French synthesizer artist Jean Michel Jarre composed a piece for Ron McNair that he was supposed to play on his saxophone while on the shuttle mission. It is an extremely moving piece, and when it was performed live in Houston in 1986, with Curt Willow performing Ron's piece, millions of people cried as they watched projections of all the Challenger astronauts on the Houston skyline.
WOW, THEY SHOULD HAVE THAT ON TV, IF THEY HAVE NOT YET.
What a lovely story. Joy I am so proud of you. You've found your own path, and done things in your own time, you're dad is so happy, we are all so happy. Soon with what you will accomplish next, the World will have a reason to smile and be happy. I can feel it !
Right on :)
Although I don't really believe in such things, I like to imagine Mr McNair looking at his daghter from wherever he is and glowing with pride and satisfaction at how she turned out. A very pleasant thought.
Yours is a nice comment, just one thing: few or no scientists believe in a christian heaven or a muslim one. Rather carryihng the memories inside one's head is a more powerful motivator that results in positve performance, as his son and daigjter have proved :)
Hi Joy and Ronald. I was in law school in our student lounge watching the Challenger on the news when the disaster occured. The entire room was in a state of shock and grief stricken. Ever since that day I've thought of you, your brother and your Mom. I always felt so sad for you and your brother because you both were so small when your Dad gave his all with the rest of the crew in furtherance of space exploration. Whenever I think of the Challenger I say a little prayer for you and your brother. I never knew anything about you until know. I'm glad you have become your own person and I'm amazed at the similarities between you and your Dad. I'm glad your brother plays his sax. I'm also proud that my high school in Atlanta was renamed "McNair Middle School".
A beautiful story with amazing parallels. Ron McNair achieved amazing things, and it sounds like Joy is walking in his footsteps. She is little different than the child of a soldier who dies in the line of duty ... except instead of fighting the nation's enemies, her father served our country reaching for tor the stars. What a legacy!
yep, :) a great way to uphold and honor the memory of Ronald McNair :) He would have been so proud of his children :) Anyway, as long as that school remains, the memory of this hero will pass down through the generations.
Also another great hero counts on us: President Obama. Make sure to go out and vote. I think, romney is faking erors in order to mnake us assume other democrats will vote for us, Then romney makes sure all repukes go out and vote; we could be overwhelmed, so all votes are crucial, Yours too, of course. Let us not take victory for granted. Also, make sure an absentee vote site is really for Presiident Obama. I almost fell for a mccain/gingrich fake "neutral voting site."
Glad to see Dr. Ron McNair legacy is living through his children.
There are also many schools and scholarships in his honor. His name will not be forgotten.
This article also shows how much these "Father's" and "Mother's" Days can hurt someone with a parent who has passed away or an absent parent. Everything in the greeting card business is for the "normal family".
HAPPY FATHER'S DAY TO ALL YOU DADS AND REMEMBER THE GREATNESS OF A CHILD STARTS WITH YOU.
Astronaut McNair would be so proud of his children. What a wonderful legacy he left through them.
A wonderful story about a great father and his daughter, who never got to know him. Politics need not apply here!!!
I toured Arlington Cemetery and there's a large, beautiful monument to the Challenger astronauts. A must-see if you get to visit Washington DC.
I can't help but think the best monument of all would have been for NASA to have listened to Morton Thiokol and for the crew of Challenger to have completed a successful mission.
this is the best day if your father is living if you have lost your father my sympathy and i join all those who has loss their father may their soul rest in perfect peace
Ishmael, thank you for your kind words.
Are we serious here?
The story of a Great American Father and the only thing people can do is take underhanded jabs at white people, or backhanded jabs at black people, or say that the 'real' hero is their mother.
Would it be so terribly difficult to appreciate Dr McNair for what he means to his daughter, what he means to the US, and what he means to humanity?
Guys, with this kind of negativity in our hearts the US can never aspire to the greatness in the vision of our forefathers. Franklin, Washington, Lincoln, Edison, Roosevelt, Ike, King, Kennedy and yes, even McNair. "...With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right...etc..." anyone remember that?
Give the anti-black and anti-white stuff a break for ONE SINGLE DAY PLEASE!
Thank you. You have great wisdom and heart! I wish everybody would be like you!
Our society is collapsing and we doomed due to our laziness, arrogance, greed, and stupidity.
Thank you for saying that. I agree. Your comment was much needed and I am happy that CNN posted it. My warm thought and wishes go out to Joy and all the other families that lost a loved one.
How profound. If only all humans could see through your eyes..
I agree it is a nice story and I am glad she has her life on such a successful track but that first paragraph could have beenw ritten differently. I only read the article because I couldn't understand how someone could have a memory that they 'borrowed from someone else'. She does not have a memory of herself running to her astronaut dad, she has an anecdote passed on to her by her mother that she used to do that. They are not the same thing but it is still a good story overall.
Wonderful story and what life really means.
Dr. MacNair will always be part our lives. There are countless schools, recreation parks, colleges, streets, etc., named after him. As an American, I am extremely proud for his achievements, and his examplary life. He epithomizes resilience and perseverance. May God bless his children!!!
I remembered vividly what happened that day. I was glued in front of the tv, and the space craft exploded, I cried incessantly...
Dr. Mcnair is the personification of resilience and determination. In order to climb up the ladder of upward mobility, one has to follow the path of education...I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Joy and her brother for their achievement. I am a teacher, and feel the best way to contribute something to society is through teaching. When I hear successful story like Lori's, it solidifies my belief that a good education can help a person to achieve their God given potential.
These are the sorts of posts that should be posted reguardless of the story or situation. Glass-half-full. :)
THis was a reallly nice story.
I was in the Army and we had just landed our uh-1h helicopter right after the explosion happened. We heard the transmission from the tower and, like many other American Solders, we were unsettled but focused on our mission.
Later that year, an ironic thing happened while on deployment. You see, this "black guy", who was in special operations died during a combat mission we were supporting. It was really "strange", he had red blood just like me AND he fought for our country just like me.
My point, there are plenty people of color who are just as qualified and patriotic as the next "guy". So before you go spouting your vitriol, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself, "what have I done to make the world a better place?".
People like Bill24 is exactly why Affirmative Action is needed, sadly. Even if he's just "trolling", you have to understand that the mindset DOES exist. So many White Americans think that such levels of racism is a thing of the past when unfortunately, it isn't. Just because you were raised right and/or are intelligent enough to know better doesn't mean everyone else was as fortunate. :/
The first sentence should have read "People like Bill24 ARE–not is." Typo there and no edit button. >.<
Good story, legend even. To lose a father is painful, I am glad you have gain a Hero, however I know the pain will not ever subside because the fact of him not being there will always take precedence. My Father didn't die, he left when I was 5, I haven't seen him since in my 30 years, to me I kind of have to treat him like that he was dead. I know your pain that you feel, my father was never there, he doesn't want to be and even after trying to get back in touch with him he chooses to be a ghost to me, So this father's day I celebrate it with my step-father, and even though he isn't perfect or blood, he has been there and that's what matters.
To those who have fathers who were great, who died early, to mothers who died early, so children and grandchildren will never know them: rejoice in memories. Cry a tear. Find the stories, for you do have them in you. You are their legacy. They live on in you. This is a great story that could be told over and over and enrich us All in every walk of life, in every land.
To those who have fathers who were great, who died early, to mothers who died early, so children and grandchildren will never know them: rejoice in memories. Cry a tear. Find the stories, for you do have them in you. You are their legacy. They live on in you. This is a great story that could be told over and over and enrich us All in every walk of life, in every land. I am so sorry for those whose fathers didn't return and show interest. That is very hard. Hang in there. I would hug you if I could, and share my fatherhood, my sense of nurturing if I could.
Thanks for sharing. I'm sorry for your loss too.
What a wonderful tribute to your brave and brilliant father.
RIP Dr. McNair, and all of the Challenger astronauts who lost their lives.
Take comfort in the fact that your father's name will echo into eternity as an explorer on the level of Marco Polo. Astronauts are the unsung heroes of the human race.
I am so happy to learn that Dr. McNair's children are doing fine. I was fortunate to have known Dr. McNair while we were both students at NC A&T. Even then he was destined for greatness. His parents raised wonderful children and your mom obviously did the same thing.
I'm sending this via Reply as I can't find the comment box.
This story stopped me in my tracks. So moving and touching. Bless you and him. Amazing people !
Mae, thanks for sharing. Hopefully you can connect with Joy in DC and share your personal stories with her and Ronald. They'd probably enjoy hearing about his life before he became the famous and heroic Dr. Ronald McNair.
I was in the back of a ch-46 marine helicopter trying to stay warm as we did touch and goes at Myrtle Beach South Carolina...the controller cleared us for landing and then said "The space shuttle just blew up on takeoff...stunned ..we waved off and upon arriving back at base that evening, I,ll always remember walking down the hallway past other marines rooms and seeing the shuttle explode...over and over...on the tv ...as i passed each door. SOUNDS TO ME LIKE YOUR DAD WOULD BE VERY PROUD,AS YOU SHOULD BE.
Although my dad was not as educated or as accomplished as Mr. McNair. I know how his daughter feels. My dad died when I was 3 and even though I don't have any memories of him that are mine, hearing stories about what a good person he was does make me feel proud. Miss McNair, there's no doubt in my mind that your father is immensely proud of you and your brother!
This isn't really in reply to Lori, but I couldn't figure out any other way to post this. This is my 3rd Father's Day without my dad, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him. He wasn't my "birth" father, but I acquired him on my 18th birthday. He taught me to drive and never said a word when I "took out" the passenger side rear mirror on the garage. He walked me down the aisle and was the first person that I told when my husband left for a "mid-life crisis fling". He never treated my children any differently than my stepbrother's sons. My children adored him. He was, and I say this with no doubt in my mind,the best thing that ever came along in my mother's life, and I miss him every day. So here's to all of our "dads".
I remember the day Discovery exploded on launch. I was watching the launch on TV at the Rockwell facility in Palmdale Calif. where I was working for the Air Force as a QA specialist. When Discovery exploded i was less than one hundred yards from where it had been built.
Ed, I believe you are mistaken, Discovery never exploded. Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off and Columbia broke apart on re-entry.....
Actually, Challenger broke up due to aerodynamic forces ... it didn't actually " explode ", though that is a widely-held and understandable misconception.
See ht tp://history.nasa.gov/rogersrep/genindex.htm for details, this report can be illuminating for those who haven't encountered it before.
Great story! Ronald is an American Hero and his daughter is a top-notch success story as well. I am sad that Joy didn't get to know her Father. The news stories, photos and people who knew Ronal are a gift in that they probably have helped keep Ronald's memory vivid, interesting and 3-D for Joy. Blessings for Ronald and his family*
We're very proud of your dad, but also proud of your mom & the wonderful job she did raising 2 exceptional children single-handedly. Most of all, we're proud of YOU both – for proving that hard work, determination and making good choices in life pay off. Too often people of all colors & creeds whine, complain & expect somebody else to give them something because they lack the motivation to work hard & take responsibility for their own lives. Thanks for being the terrific role models you are & best wishes always!
Thjis man is a shining example of the American work ethic! Shame he is gone. The rest of you take notice! Hard work overcomes all obstacles.
Who are you to judge who is hard working and who isn't. As usual there's always one or more in the bunch to take a great article and try to turn into something to demean others. Please get off your high horse and stop acting like you're judge and jury!
Great story. Even the deceased leave a path of inspiration for their children and others just reading about them.
He was a true pioneer. A person who achieve his goals in life. Unlike many people who claim their skin color is the reason for their failure in life, Dr. McNair showed that persistence pays off. He knew that the best way to achieve one's goals in life is through study. So did his daughter. The McNair family should be an an example not only for African Americans but the people who want to move ahead "the easy way", like many in this generation , You do not depend on oportunists such as Jesse Jackson & Fahrakan to achieve your goals. You do it the right way. The hard way. My hat goes off to this family. How come they succeeded where others failed? Because they did not need everything handed to them! Congratulations. I wish I had the opportunity to shake the hand of your father. He is a true hero in more ways than one.
Well said Sir!!
You just had to go and screw it up didn't you? You almost said something nice, then blew it. You see, Farrakhan and Jackson were getting the **it kicked out of them back in the days of civil rights movements (and today). For some reason, a lot of folks thought it ended there. Jim Crow is still around in the minds of people who in many cases, are in great part responsible for digression. They never had it easy and are not trying to encourage people to take any easy routes. McNair was exceptional, but not THE exception.
I must say this was a very interesting story indeed, indeed!
Wow, what a story. You have every reason to be proud of your dad. We all are.
That is one happy baby girl. Damn.
Light Years strives to tell the stories of science research, discovery, space and education. This is your go-to place on CNN.com for today’s stories, but also for a scientific perspective on the news and everyday wonders. Come indulge your curiosity in all things space and science related, brought to you by the entire CNN family.
July 19thAtlas V launch of US DOD MUOS-2 satellite, notable for large "551" config of Atlas
Aug 3rdJapanese HTV-4 flight to ISS on cargo supply mission
Aug 14thSpaceX launch of Canadian satellite in the first launch from their new Vandenberg facility, and first launch of upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicle
Aug 28thDelta IV Heavy launch of NROL-65 spy satellite
SeptemberSoyuz TMA-08M flight returning Expedition 36 crew from ISS to Earth (Kazakhstan)
Sept 12thOrbital Sciences maiden flight of Cygnus cargo vehicle on Antares rocket to ISS
Sept 25thSoyuz TMA-10M flight launching Expedition 38 crew to ISS
Dec 9thSpaceX Dragon launch by Falcon 9 v1.1 on CRS-3 cargo supply mission to ISS
recurringfirst powered test flights of Scaled Composites' SpaceShipTwo commercial vehicle, to be used by Virgin Galactic for sub-orbital tourism