Challenger daughter's journey to know her hero dad
Joy McNair enjoys time with her father, NASA mission specialist Ronald McNair, in an undated family photo.
June 16th, 2012
09:00 PM ET

Challenger daughter's journey to know her hero dad

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.

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Filed under: Dear Old Dad • In Space • News
soundoff (71 Responses)
  1. RF Burns

    She's a bright young lady with a great future. Her dad would be very proud. You go girl!

    June 23, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • lagergeld

      Would you have said, "You go girl!" if she weren't black? I find that comical.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  2. Tom

    Ron was the only astronaut I ever met, and was extremely friendly & personable! True hero & great American.

    June 22, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • RF Burns

      Thank-you for sharing your experience. Many years later, this is still a tragic story.

      June 23, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  3. Larry H

    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.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • lincoln

      that's awesome

      June 21, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • lagergeld

      He sounds like a real Uncle Tom.

      July 2, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
      • GUTSY333


        August 6, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  4. Thorbecke

    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.

    June 19, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • GUTSY333


      August 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  5. Danielle D.

    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 !

    June 18, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
    • GUTSY333

      Right on 🙂

      August 6, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  6. Fritz

    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.

    June 18, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • GUTSY333

      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 🙂

      August 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  7. ATLApplePie

    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".

    June 18, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • Mike Weland

      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!

      June 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • GUTSY333

      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."

      August 6, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  8. Craig

    Glad to see Dr. Ron McNair legacy is living through his children.

    June 17, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • rh

      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".

      June 18, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  9. Claudia, Houston, Tx


    June 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  10. Crazybusy

    Astronaut McNair would be so proud of his children. What a wonderful legacy he left through them.

    June 17, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
  11. Mike

    A wonderful story about a great father and his daughter, who never got to know him. Politics need not apply here!!!

    June 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  12. Thanks to Good Fathers Everywhere

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Judas Priest

      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.

      June 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  13. Ishmael Mansaray

    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

    June 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Thanks to Good Fathers Everywhere

      Ishmael, thank you for your kind words.

      June 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  14. exqzme

    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!

    June 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • samuel

      Thank you. You have great wisdom and heart! I wish everybody would be like you!

      June 17, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • Number4

      Our society is collapsing and we doomed due to our laziness, arrogance, greed, and stupidity.

      June 17, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
    • Sherie

      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.

      June 18, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • cvf

      How profound. If only all humans could see through your eyes..

      June 19, 2012 at 3:09 am |
  15. gregingso

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 11:19 am |

    Wonderful story and what life really means.

    June 17, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  17. Jgeorges

    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!!!

    June 17, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  18. Jgeorges

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Tommy

      These are the sorts of posts that should be posted reguardless of the story or situation. Glass-half-full. 🙂

      June 17, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  19. purnellmeagrejr

    THis was a reallly nice story.

    June 17, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  20. Manuel J.

    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?".

    June 17, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  21. shellshock

    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. :/

    June 17, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • shellshock

      The first sentence should have read "People like Bill24 ARE–not is." Typo there and no edit button. >.<

      June 17, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  22. Harry From Pa

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • John_father_son

      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.

      June 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
    • John_father_son

      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.

      June 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • ATLApplePie

      Thanks for sharing. I'm sorry for your loss too.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:32 am |
  23. Sue

    What a wonderful tribute to your brave and brilliant father.

    June 17, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  24. Ed

    RIP Dr. McNair, and all of the Challenger astronauts who lost their lives.

    June 17, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  25. Sean H.

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  26. Mae

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • kathy cromwell

      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 !

      June 17, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • ATLApplePie

      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.

      June 18, 2012 at 1:46 am |
  27. scott

    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 i passed each door. SOUNDS TO ME LIKE YOUR DAD WOULD BE VERY PROUD,AS YOU SHOULD BE.

    June 17, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  28. Lori

    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!

    June 17, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • Kate65

      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".

      June 17, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  29. Edward Gaddis

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • FactMan

      Ed, I believe you are mistaken, Discovery never exploded. Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off and Columbia broke apart on re-entry.....

      June 17, 2012 at 1:37 am |
      • Davidcavissi

        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:// for details, this report can be illuminating for those who haven't encountered it before.

        June 17, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  30. Cheryl

    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*

    June 17, 2012 at 1:16 am |
  31. Davisra

    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!

    June 17, 2012 at 12:49 am |
  32. Tom

    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.

    June 17, 2012 at 12:48 am |
    • V.P.

      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!

      June 17, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  33. Joejava

    Great story. Even the deceased leave a path of inspiration for their children and others just reading about them.

    June 17, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  34. Tony1953

    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.

    Tony MD

    June 17, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Premjith

      Well said Sir!!

      June 17, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • Reggie from LA

      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.

      June 17, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  35. Laquesha Longbottom

    I must say this was a very interesting story indeed, indeed!

    June 17, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  36. Irina

    Wow, what a story. You have every reason to be proud of your dad. We all are.

    June 17, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  37. Wendy Jane

    That is one happy baby girl. Damn.

    June 17, 2012 at 12:08 am |


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