Born in Lake City, South Carolina, he was raised by his parents, Pearl M. and Carl C. McNair, and had two brothers, Carl S. and Eric A. McNair.
In the summer of 1959, he refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library without being allowed to check out his books. After the police and his mother were called, he was allowed to borrow books from the library, which is now named after him.
A child's book, Ron's Big Mission, offers a fictionalized account of this event. McNair graduated as valedictorian of Carver High School in 1967.
Astronaut candidates Ron McNair, Guy Bluford, and Fred Gregory wearing Apollo spacesuits, May 1978
In 1978, Dr. McNair was selected as one of thirty-five applicants from a pool of ten thousand for the NASA astronaut program. He flew on STS-41-B aboard Challenger from 3–11 February 1984, as a mission specialist becoming the second African American and the first Bahá'í to fly in space.
Following this mission, Dr. McNair was selected for STS-51-L, which launched on 28 January 1986, and was subsequently killed when Challengerdisintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean just 73 seconds after liftoff.
Before his fateful last space shuttle mission he had worked with the composer Jean Michel Jarre on a piece of music for Jarre's then-upcoming album Rendez-Vous. It was intended that he would record his saxophone solo on board the Challenger, which would have made McNair's solo the first original piece of music to have been recorded in space (although the song "Jingle Bells" had been played on a harmonica during an earlier Gemini 6 spaceflight). However, the recording was never made as the flight ended in disaster and the deaths of its entire crew. The last of the Rendez-Vous pieces, (Last Rendez-Vous) had the additional name "Ron's Piece". Ron McNair was supposed to take part in the concert through a live feed.
On January 29, 2011, the Lake City, South Carolina, library was dedicated as the Ronald McNair Life History Center. When Ronald McNair was nine, the police and his mother were called because he wished to check out books from this library, which served only white patrons before he arrived. He said, "I'll wait," to the lady and sat on the counter until the police and his mother arrived, and the officer said, "Why don't you just give him the books?" which the lady behind the counter reluctantly did. He said, "Thank you, M'am," as he got the books.
Several K-12 schools have also been named after McNair.
The McNair Post-baccalaureate Achievement Program, which operates at 179 campuses in the U.S. (April 7), awards research money and internships to first-generation and otherwise underrepresented students in preparation for graduate work.
The song, "A Drop Of Water," recorded by Japanese jazz artist Keiko Matsui, with vocals by the late Carl Anderson, was written in tribute to Dr. McNair.
The Jean Michel Jarre track Last Rendez-Vous was re titled Ron's Piece in his honor. McNair was originally due to record the track in space aboard Challenger, and then perform it via a live link up in Jarre's Rendez-vous Houston concert.