The Wonder of It All

By  |  November 19, 2019
Illustration by Robert Beatty Illustration by Robert Beatty

In Ron McNair’s Orbit


 

“L

ake City looks like a nice place, it really does!” My father is enchanted by the tiny, old-timey hamlets of the rural South, where he has spent nearly all of his seventy-nine years. Twenty years removed from my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I moved back a few years ago to spend time with him. We live together in my childhood home, a country drive from his birthplace of King. He is spooked by technology and enraged by politics, so the only time Dad seems at ease is during folksy trips to towns seemingly untouched by either. Every Sunday, he drives past King on Highway 52 to eat breakfast with friends in Mount Airy, Andy Griffith’s hometown and the enduring prototype for Mayberry. Occasionally, he’ll continue north, just over the state line into Carroll County, Virginia, to collect peaches or siphon water from a friend’s spring. Each trip concludes with a refrain: “I would like to live up there—but I don’t deserve to!” (What unspeakable acts my father has committed in this life or others that he feels makes him unfit to live in Cana, Virginia, population one thousand two hundred and fifty-four, are unclear.) So it came as no surprise that he was excited to find the tourism guide to Lake City, a bucolic community in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region from which I had just returned, between the seats of my car. “A tobacco festival! In 2019!” he said in disbelief. “Now I’d like to go to that!” 

As is the case with most wide spots in the road in that northeastern designation, wilderness is on the offense to reclaim the rich, sandy soil upon which small agricultural communities like Lake City have sprouted. Encouraged by inescapable humidity and an insistent sun, vines, grasses, and shrubs pull at the eaves of sagging porches, buckle the sidewalks, and shuttle foundations. Confused mailboxes cock their heads at curious angles, as do the improvised lawn crosses, rigged from sticks and twine. Cash crops and human beings rarely agree on what constitutes ideal weather. I have crisscrossed the Carolinas many times over the years, looking for an obscure record, an old studio, or an elusive musician. During the summer months, I unfailingly will step out of the air-conditioned comfort of my Subaru onto some unpaved driveway, stunned by the first disorienting gasp of hot, Southern oxygen. I grieve for the generations of laborers—mostly poor, mostly black—who crouched in fields throughout these counties to scrape together meager earnings. As I rolled down my window to photograph the towering cross that welcomes motorists to Lake City one Wednesday in July, the heat hit my lungs and fogged my sunglasses. Looking out over an adjacent field, I couldn’t help but imagine the resilient McNair brothers—Carl, Ron, and Eric—backs arched in this informal farmland, harvesting the tobacco leaves, cucumbers, and cotton that flourish under the cantankerous South Carolina sun. 

I first heard Ronald McNair’s name in a musical context in 2009, while conducting interviews for a survey of Greensboro, North Carolina’s seventies soul scene for the city’s alternative weekly. Like local legends Curtis Moore, Roy Roberts, and the Electric Express, wholesale fame had eluded George Bishop and his Mighty Majors troupe, a rotating cast of musical pupils from North Carolina A&T State University. The Mighty Majors were responsible for serious soul records in the Carolina canon including the unofficial Aggie anthem “A&T’s Party,” released in 1967 by an aliased incarnation of the group called the Party Brothers, and the orphaned Isley Brothers imposter “Rap, Rap, Rap,” released on Bishop’s own Gate City Records. Bishop made only passing mention of McNair being among the notable folks to pass through his band, but the name didn’t ring a bell. Not one to relinquish the spotlight, he satisfied my curiosity about McNair by simply stating, “He died on that Challenger.”

I was born in 1980. Our family dog, Boots, died on January 27, 1986, and I had been allowed to stay out of school the following day. While my kindergarten classmates sat on mats, preparing to watch the launch, I rode with my dad to the little town of Troy, North Carolina, to pick up a braided rug from Capel Rugs. As we were inclined to do, we wandered into an antiques store, where my father purchased a bank deposit slip from Stokes County, dated January 3, 1914, declaring that a J. P. Dalton maintained a balance of one thousand dollars (it is still framed and mounted on our living room wall). On our drive home from Troy, we heard news of the Challenger over the radio. I remember my dad’s lament, but I was simply too young to understand the profound sadness embodied by the generational tragedy that occurred that morning over Cape Canaveral. Even at age twenty-nine, sitting on George Bishop’s couch with sufficient maturity to comprehend the gravity of such a catastrophe, it was hard to focus on any one aspect of the ill-fated flight before getting swallowed by the enormity of the event. Challenger mission STS-51-L is one of those “I remember where I was” tragedies—the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., news of Elvis Presley’s passing, the felling of the World Trade Center. The launch was a highly publicized event, broadcast on live TV. The seven individuals aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger had been assembled to illustrate the diversity and inclusiveness of NASA and thus included an African-American man, a Hawaiian man of Japanese ancestry, and two women, one of whom was civilian teacher Christa McAuliffe, whose inclusion prompted schools nationwide to wheel TV carts into their classrooms. An estimated seventeen percent of Americans watched. As flags were lowered, poems written, and tribute songs recorded, society fixated on the number seven—the seven people who perished—rarely pausing to see the individual losses as the freestanding tragedies they each were. To me, hearing about a singular life lost during this catastrophe, and mentioned, as Bishop had, in a wholly new context, was a kind of revelation. You mean there was a person on the Challenger? Not seven people, as I had always believed? And one of them, Ron McNair, was a verifiable friend of a friend, a veteran of one of the Carolinas’ most significant soul bands?

Today, in Lake City, one does not have to veer far off S. Ron McNair Boulevard, after passing Dr. Ronald E. McNair Junior High School, to arrive at the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park and the neighboring Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. The museum is staffed mostly by Ron’s classmates, friends, and neighbors. Some of these folks never left Lake City, evident in their syrupy twang. Others fled, only to return after decades in distant metropolises. “Everybody from Lake City has an invisible umbilical cord to Lake City,” said McNair’s childhood friend Harry M. Wright. “Everybody just gets along.” Clyde Bess, a classmate of McNair’s at Carver High School, still lives north of town in Coward, South Carolina (“Family name, by the way,” Bess noted of the town’s peculiar designation). The day prior, there had been fifty-two kids from Bennettsville at the center, but that afternoon it was just me and Clyde. “When the center opened, our goal was to have a message,” said Bess, who is the de facto manager of the volunteer-run facility. “Lake City is a small place, and there’s not a lot here. But Ronald wasn’t just born here and woke up one day an astronaut. There were several things that influenced his life and he took advantage of those things—and we want people to know those same kinds of influences can shape their lives, too.” The expectation is not that every Lake City youth become an astronaut, physicist, laser specialist, fifth-degree black belt, and first-chair saxophonist, but to support the notion that the soil beneath Lake City can nurture any dream that any young person could think to sow.  

 

Ronald McNair was born October 21, 1950, to Pearl, a schoolteacher, and Carl Sr., an auto mechanic. Ronald’s paternal grandfather was Anderson McNair, a bishop at the Church of God, which stood in the front yard of the McNair home at the corner of Moore and Deep River streets. “See—that’s something that you literally inherit from your grandparents, and the great-grandparents,” remarked Carl, the oldest brother, from his home in Atlanta, “because during the time of segregation, most of the people—they didn’t have much. Religion is not something that we do. As black people, it’s something that we need to live.” Carl preceded Ronald in birth by a mere ten months, followed closely by Eric. Ron’s accelerated pace of learning is well documented—reading street signs by age three, enrolling in first grade at age four. When he was nine, Ron approached the counter of the segregated Lake City Library with a science book, only to be denied the privilege of checking it out. In the African-American community, the building was often referred to as the “not-so-public library,” as its contents were only accessible to white residents. When Ron refused to relinquish the volume, the librarian called the police, then his mother. With the exception of young Ron, everyone seemed to understand the complicated, yet trivial impasse. Eventually he was allowed to check out the book—a supplement to the flimsy brochure that accompanied his prized slide rule. It is on the site of this confrontation with Jim Crow that the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center now sits.

The McNair homeplace on nearby Moore Street was notoriously tidy, if not structurally sound—pots and pans were placed throughout to collect what water the roof couldn’t repel. “I came from a very high, upper-class family,” Ron was often quoted as saying. “We just had a very low income.” With no prevailing industry in Lake City, most folks prospered from what they could pick, finding seasonal work in the fields that lay on the fringes of town. “Our neighborhood—I thought it was nice,” recalled Rufus Timmons, who grew up across the street from the McNairs. “We didn’t know we were poor.” Neither whites nor blacks had much in Lake City, which was neither backward nor progressive. “Everybody knew their place,” Wright said. “We knew when we walked into that drug store not to sit at that counter—we just knew it.” 

Music was prevalent in the McNair household. Carl Sr. performed regionally with a gospel group called the Five Clouds of Harmony. The country music that dominated the rural airwaves would blare at high volumes to wake up the McNair boys for school each morning. The soul sounds being spun by Moe the Rooster on WYNN-FM in nearby Florence (“I went out West to get this mess, and came back East to spread the grease”) were complemented by bundles of mail-order 45s from Randy’s Record Shop of Gallatin, Tennessee. To his children’s chagrin, Carl Sr. would bring home classical records, only to later find the flying saucers crash-landed in the yard. 

In the sixth grade, Carl and Ron entered the school band, both beginning instruction on the clarinet. “It could be said that the clarinet does in concert band music what violins in orchestras do,” Ron later said in an interview for NASA’s Science and Engineering Newsletter. “Since I am not a musician who likes to sit with my horn in my lap, I always went for the challenge of the clarinet.” The McNair boys had to share the same instrument until band instructor Edward Cooper traveled twenty miles to Florence to buy what Ron described as an “old, broken-down, worn-out saxophone,” one that was made playable with tape, rubber bands, and a determined pupil. 

“Our musical skills got known by a lot of the students,” recalled Wright, who was finding his groove on the trumpet. “At recess, kids would be on the side of the building, waiting for us to come out with our horns. We played requests. The Temptations were popular during that time, James Brown. We were playing the melodies—arranging on the fly.” McNair and Wright caught the attention of local bandleader Bobby Graham, who approached the pair’s respective parents about allowing the teens to join his group, the Shades, who donned sunglasses during performances at area proms and spring hops. Ron was also becoming a star on the football team, as well as an exceptional student. “He started getting to a place where he’d get angry if he got anything less than an A,” remembered Timmons, whose mental picture of McNair shows him “walking with about five or six books under his arm, about four or five pens in his shirt pocket, and a slide rule in his back pocket.” One day while playing basketball at the McNairs’ house, Timmons noticed Ron using his slide rule to measure a telephone pole’s shadow in order to calculate its height. “I made a speech about him one time,” Timmons said, “and I mentioned that if you looked at him, you would have thought he was a nerd.” He quickly clarified, “But he wasn’t no nerd that you’d want to mess with! He was rough on that football field.” 

Pearl and Carl Sr. separated in the early sixties and from then on, Carl and Ron would spend the school year in Lake City and summers with their father in East Harlem, where they were exposed to even hipper music and flashier dance moves. Their father lived within walking distance of the Apollo, where they saw everyone from Billy Stewart to James Brown. They found summer jobs—Ron as a typist and Carl at a leather factory. Ron even discovered a music shop where he gleaned insights into soloing and improvisation. 

Back in Lake City, Ron continued to excel in music, athletics, and academics, making him a model student at the all-black Carver High School. “He could do whatever he wanted to do,” recalled Cooper, the band instructor. “The faculty had to kind of fight amongst ourselves to get him into whatever we wanted him into. The math department was just as interested in him as I was—and the athletic department, also.” 

Despite being offered a football scholarship from Howard University, Ron intended to pursue a degree in physics, a major that was not offered by any of the black institutions in South Carolina. It was a policy in South Carolina, as it was in many Southern states, that if a particular major was not available regionally at a black institution, the state would pay the out-of-state fee to allow black degree seekers to matriculate elsewhere. “What they were trying to do is keep us from getting into the white schools—Clemson University, University of South Carolina, and the like,” explained Carl. “These folks didn’t invent the racism, but it was pretty well ingrained, with all kinds of tactics to try to get rid of us.”

107 Feat KirbyMcNair NASARon McNair, 41-B mission specialist, “starring” in a test of the Cinema 360 camera aboard the Earth-orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger, February 1984. Courtesy of NASA

 

The small coastal town of New Bern, North Carolina, was already heating up on the morning of Sunday, September 3, 1967, when the Sidberrys left for Greensboro to deliver their oldest child, Bill, to the predominantly black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. In the cargo bay of the family’s white 1962 Chevrolet station wagon were a few suitcases, a Fender Princeton amplifier, and Bill’s prized Gibson Les Paul Jr.—a simpler, yet shapelier version of the classic axe. Creeping along Highway 70 through Kinston, crawling past Clayton, the family passed Raleigh’s capitol building before making a left onto Highway 54, routing the troop through Graham, Burlington, and eventually Greensboro. New Bern was not a wealthy town, and the Sidberrys were not a wealthy family. Arriving at Scott Hall in church shoes, slacks, and his favorite white long-sleeved shirt, Bill was mesmerized by the slick attire of his fellow classmates—two-tone wingtips, finely combed cardigans, and tailored slacks. Among the sea of family vehicles dropping off freshmen were remarkable student automobiles—the latest Pontiac GTOs, Corvettes, and Thunderbirds. Despite the obvious disparity amongst the students, Bill was not made to feel out of place, but rather was struck by an immediate sense of camaraderie and community. City and country folk alike, there seemed to be an unspoken sense that everyone had overcome once-unthinkable odds to earn a future at the revered institution. Off campus, Greensboro might have been another Southern city with an ugly history of racism and prejudice, but A&T’s campus was a place where African Americans were free to be black and brilliant. 

Before the advent of online registration, schedules and books were acquired on line, literally, with students standing in queues for hours at a time. Sidberry didn’t mind the wait. “There were folks in those lines that could tell jokes that Richard Pryor or Redd Foxx would find funny!” he recently told me. After registering for classes, Sidberry made a break for the dining hall, which, due to the agricultural aspect of the university, had an abundance of fresh vegetables, meat, and “all the milk you wanted to drink.” He found a seat among fellow classmates from J. T. Barber High School, who were collectively marveling at all they had seen in the short time they’d been on campus. After lunch, he went to the bookstore in the basement of the student union and noticed a flyer for a fast-approaching talent show. He didn’t think much of it until he returned to Scott Hall with his books and heard a distinctive and alluring saxophone melody snaking through the halls of his dormitory. At first he dismissed it as a stereo, but the closer Sidberry got to the sound’s source, the more apparent it became that someone on the first floor could really play.

“There wasn’t any of that squeaking, trying to find themselves in-between notes—this person was doing some of that John Coltrane, Charlie Parker stuff. Those runs.” Today, Bill Sidberry lives with his wife, Connie, on a beautiful tree-lined street in the Raleigh suburb of Garner. Modest homes sit nestled into banks of old growth beneath towering pines on streets that wind and climb, rarely meeting at right angles. Since retiring from Carolina Power and Light in 2007, Sidberry has kept busy with a variety of projects and hobbies. He maintains a fleet of Lincolns, and when I paid a visit in August, one sat askew on jacks, awaiting new ball joints and a stabilizer that he will install himself. There was a partially dismantled piano in the backyard, being sorted into neat, recyclable piles. Sidberry still plays guitar. He welcomed me into his living room, where the 1971 edition of Ayantee, the university’s yearbook, sat on the coffee table opened to Ron McNair’s photo. Sidberry was excitable and energetic as he told me the crystalized account of their first encounter. 

Once there was a break in playing, Sidberry recalled, he knocked on the door. “I’m a guitar player, so I just stopped by for a few minutes and introduced myself. I had been around a few horn players by then, and, boy, he ran rings around those guys.” Ron urged Bill to grab his guitar and amplifier so they could run through some tunes together. Within the first few bars of “Misty,” Sidberry realized that the bespectacled freshman was in a league of his own. “We quickly established who was the student and who was the teacher,” he confessed. “He seemed to be very focused and intense. I was like, guitar is kind of a casual thing, but on that horn? No. He was definitely serious about playing the horn and playing it right.” 

A few days later, during another impromptu session in Ron’s dorm room, another Scott Hall resident remembered only as Mack knocked on the door, carrying a bass. With two inputs on the Fender Princeton, Mack plugged into Bill’s amp. Soon a drummer found his way to Ron’s room. Once rehearsals had been moved to the student union, vocally inclined passersby heard familiar melodies by the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett, and approached the members to see how they could get the budding combo to back them for the upcoming talent show in Harrison Auditorium. According to his friends, Ron receded from the campus music scene as his coursework intensified, but he always made time to fill in on a gig, or share some pointers with his musical peers. “I was thankful to have been able to play with a talent like that,” Sidberry said, walking me to my car. “He could definitely show me some licks and runs and chords on that horn that I had never thought of. That’s the way the guy was.” He paused for a moment. “You would have liked him.”   

During Ron’s sophomore year, a new physics professor arrived on campus. “I was looking for something to do to try and make the world a better place, so I decided to come down here to A&T,” said Tom Sandin. A native of Tucson, Arizona, Sandin had taught in Indiana before setting his sights on A&T. “We met somebody in West Lafayette who had been down in Greensboro and mentioned somebody having a cross burned in their yard, so we didn’t know exactly what we would encounter. We were just going to be here for a couple years, then move on, but we liked it, and so we’re still here.” The Sandins were not spared the biases of their new environs. “The very first day we moved in, Mrs. White, who lived next door, came over and started talking to my wife.” Having just spent the summer poolside in Tucson, the Sandins’ dark tans belied their Caucasian ancestry. “[Mrs. White] asked, ‘Are you that dark all over?’ The next day, somebody from Sears was there, putting up a wooden fence between our house and Mrs. White’s house. That was our first two days in Greensboro.” 

Now eighty, Dr. Sandin only recently retired from teaching. The first classes he taught at the school were the first physics classes Ron took. Sandin was assigned to be Ron’s adviser, helping him navigate a major that his Lake City education had inadequately prepared him for. “He had all these guys on the yard telling him, ‘Aw, physics, man—that’s so tough!’” Sandin said. “And, quite uncharacteristically for Ronald McNair, he thought, Well, maybe I should switch to a music major.” When Ron came to counselor Ruth Gore, she reviewed his grades and his high school transcript and told him, “I think you’re good enough.” “That became Ron McNair’s mantra,” said Sandin. “‘You’re good enough.’ One thing he loved to do was to talk to young people and inspire them—tell them, ‘You’re good enough.’” 

Outside of his studies, Ron joined, and eventually presided over, the A&T karate club, and still made time to stay sharp on his saxophone. “People talk about born geniuses, but I always thought of Ron as a self-made genius,” recalled Ron’s college roommate, Keenan Sarratt. “He got his through hard work. That’s one thing I learned from him—nothing’s impossible. If it couldn’t be done, you’d have to convince him it couldn’t be done.” 

By the time graduation rolled around, McNair intended to pursue a PhD from MIT. “He was a great student, no doubt about it,” said Sandin. “All that his teachers had to do was get out of his way. When he had to have letters of recommendation written, I, as a twenty-seven-year-old guy, wrote a letter of recommendation for him to the Ford Foundation saying, ‘If you can’t give Ron McNair a fellowship, you can’t give it to anyone!’” 

 

On a Friday afternoon this August, Dr. Sandin met me at Bluford Library to show me A&T’s Ronald McNair Collection, the bulk of which comprises newspaper clippings, programs, and personal letters gathered by Sandin. For the occasion of our meeting, he wore a pristine vintage blue t-shirt commemorating the A&T Student Space Shuttle Program, organized in tandem with McNair during his time at NASA. The shirt is delightful, bearing a bulldog (the university’s mascot) wearing a spherical helmet, straddling a space shuttle, Earth in the distance. “Make sure you get the back,” he insisted, which featured the Ron McNair adage, YOU’RE GOOD ENOUGH

The Ronald McNair Collection is largely the result of Dr. Sandin’s devotion to his former pupil. “I don’t remember having any agents working for me on this stuff,” Sandin told me, as we sorted through flat files and accordion cases of McNair ephemera. “As time went by, if I saw something I could clip, I clipped.” The earliest sources span the local outlets—the Greensboro News, and the afternoon edition, the Record, the High Point Enterprise, and various campus publications. As Ron’s status rose from notable local to national icon, the clippings began to include above-the-fold features from the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Washington Post—some with personalized notes to Sandin from the reporters. Looking at all of the papers spread across the table at Bluford Library—clipped, Xeroxed, laminated—I asked Sandin what inspired him to keep following McNair’s story into the afterlife. 

“You do that, don’t you? If somebody you really care about is succeeding, and then you lose them? I would say for most of the first twenty-five years, I would not be able to talk about this without tearing up, and I guess I’m close to it now. It was like losing a child; I hope I never have to make the comparison.”

Ron had spent the spring semester of his junior year at MIT, thanks in part to Shirley Jackson, a graduate student studying theoretical physics who had been instrumental in shaping policy at MIT to entice minorities to pursue science degrees at the predominantly white institution. Dr. Jackson, who would become the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate at MIT and go on to serve an appointment on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, was assigned to be Ron’s mentor. “When I met him at Logan Airport, off the plane stepped this very sort of eager young guy—he’s wearing shades and an Afro and a big grin,” Jackson recalled. It wasn’t until Ron returned to pursue his PhD that their bond coalesced. At Jackson’s off-campus apartment, a small, tight-knit community of black students would gather to work together and independently. “Ron was always aiming at the highest levels in whatever he did, whether it was music, karate, and physics,” said Jackson. For the April 1979 issue of Scientific American, Ron co-wrote an article titled “The Physics of Karate.” Featured amid incrementally denser paragraphs about newtons per meter squared were high-speed photographs of the author, breaking boards and concrete blocks with his bare hands. Meanwhile, at St. Paul’s AME Church, where Ron taught karate, he met, and soon married, a young schoolteacher named Cheryl Moore.

Upon graduating, Ron gained employment with the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California, to work with lasers, publishing such papers as “Infrared Four-Wave Mixing in Liquid COa” in Applied Physics Letters and “Energy Storage and Vibrational Heating in CH3F Following Intense Laser Excitation” in Chemical Physics Letters. Hughes Research Lab was the kind of place where the cork boards displayed job listings for aspiring astronauts. In the late seventies, most astronauts didn’t look like Ron, and NASA wanted to change the optics of its program to include a more diverse array of individuals. After receiving a targeted brochure in the mail, Ron threw his hat into the ring. From a field of ten thousand, he was one of the thirty-five selected as a candidate for space travel. It might not have been a surprise to Ron, but Ron’s community reacted otherwise, scheduling parades and celebrations in each place he’d touched down during his journey from cotton picker to space cadet—Lake City, Greensboro, and Boston. 

“We always had a preconceived notion of what an astronaut was and what kind of family he came from, and it certainly wasn’t ours,” Ron’s brother Carl told the Greensboro News & Record in 1984, a clipping that Sandin showed me. “I always knew something good was going to happen for Ronald, but I didn’t know what,” his grandmother added in the State. “He was always so smart and always so helpful to me and his granddaddy. He is a fine grandson. He always liked me to make him a pineapple cake. I need to make him one before he goes up.” Once the confetti had settled, Ron and Cheryl moved to Houston to begin his training.

As Sandin and I pored over fragments of Ron McNair’s past that day, a 1987 clipping from the News & Record surfaced, recounting George Bishop’s initial encounter with McNair. “He was a pretty good horn player,” Bishop remarked of their 1967 talent show performance in Harrison Auditorium. “I was kind of shocked when he changed majors because I thought he had a lot of interest in music.” When we’d spoken in person, Bishop had told me the same half-truth about Ron the music major, going a step further to say that it was due to a falling out with the band director that McNair had switched to physics. But it would not be unthinkable, in passing, for a big man on campus like Bishop to mistake McNair for a music devotee, due to his fluency in each of his seemingly disparate passions. “Each person is an integration of all of their parts and that’s what Ron so represented,” explained Dr. Jackson. “He was a brilliant man in physics, he was a brilliant and brave astronaut, he was a Christian man who loved humanity, and he was an excellent musician. He was a transcendent person, you know? He transcended the boundaries of his background, and of life, but he also transcended the boundaries of Earth, and he took Earth with him.” 

 

Kurt Heisig Music, a music store in Saratoga, California, specializing in woodwinds and brass, was so heavily trafficked in the early eighties that the shop’s namesake owner often found it easier to work from his home in Rio Del Mar, where he could focus on repairs. There, Heisig had converted an enclosed porch into a workshop, with large picture windows affording him glimpses of the giant oaks that surround his property, plus a picturesque sliver of nearby Monterey. His work bench, a 1950s Formica table, was stacked high with cabinets containing all of the intricate components needed to repair saxophones. 

It was on one such afternoon in August 1983 that a clerk from the store called him, unable to answer a curious customer’s string of increasingly complex inquiries. Heisig took the call. “He asked me a number of questions and he was couching his terms very carefully,” remembered Heisig, when I reached him by phone this summer. “He was obviously incredibly intelligent, very personable, very knowledgeable about a lot of things, and he was asking very interesting questions. He wasn’t an idiot, you know. He was on target.” The customer, who was visiting from Texas, wanted to rent a particular horn that was on consignment, which Heisig was not in a position to do, as the proceeds of its sale were meant to serve as a bonus for his employees. Sensing the resistance, the caller came clean: “Well, you see, Kurt, I’m an astronaut, and I want to take the instrument into space—but you can’t tell anyone this, I haven’t even told NASA.” Though Ron was a tenor player, he’d determined that only this particular curved soprano would meet his stowage allotments aboard the spacecraft. Heisig was incredulous. “Well, you know, either this guy’s really good at spinning stories—and I’ve heard quite a few—or this is a very exciting thing!

“All of these incredibly brilliant guys were coming into the shop,” Heisig said. “Presidents, vice presidents, owners, investors—lots of top-notch egghead scientists from Silicon Valley in the store all the time. And so Ron was just another one of these guys, you know?” After conferring with his employees, Heisig acquiesced. Ron would also need lessons on how to go about playing the new horn in an unpredictable environment. How would the cabin pressure affect Ron’s ability to move air over the reed? With instrument and astronaut in freefall, where would the moisture collect? How would the pads react to the dry, circulated oxygen? (Technically, Ron wouldn’t be the first person to play an instrument in space; in December 1965, astronaut Walter Schirra smuggled a four-hole harmonica onboard Gemini VI-A, essentially pranking ground control with a fabricated Santa Claus sighting and a coarse rendering of “Jingle Bells.”) “There’s an old principle that’s really, really important, that I taught Ron,” Heisig said. “Blow! That’s fifty percent of what I taught Ron. When you’re in a situation where things are different, boy, you’d better know how to blow, or it’s gonna fail spectacularly, and you can’t afford that.” Heisig had to work around Ron’s unpredictable schedule, which meant a call would come into his shop or home at any point, day or night. “He’d call me often from quarantine, in some facility or other where he had nothing to do. I might be teaching in Saratoga; I’d tell the kids, ‘Now, during your lesson, I may get a phone call and point to that chair? You listen to every detail, because you’re going to be quizzed. You’re hearing saxophone history and someday you’ll find out what it is and you will be very excited!’” 

On February 3, 1984, Ron took the sax aboard the Challenger and into orbit. Each day of the mission, NASA played the crew a different wake-up song tailored to one of the astronauts; Ron’s face “lit up with delight” the morning he awoke to the North Carolina A&T alma mater. An official NASA document outlines the objectives for the eight-day mission: the launch of two communications satellites; the testing of the Manned Maneuvering Unit, “a backpack containing thrusters that will propel crewmen around in space, untethered, up to 300 feet away from the spacecraft”; and one final agenda item—“One or two surprises.” 

Once back on the ground, Ron received an anxious Mailgram from Heisig in coded language to obscure the nature of their conversation: 

CONGRATULATIONS. EXCITING MISSION. I HAVEN’T WATCHED ONE SO CLOSELY SINCE THE FIRST. HEART STOPPER. DID YOU GET TO TAKE IT? USE IT? HOW DID IT GO? MY SCIENTIFIC CURIOSITY IS HIGH. MY OTHER CURIOSITY IS BURSTING AT THE SEAMS. 

Within days, a photograph from the mission began making the rounds in publications worldwide: Ron McNair playing the saxophone, floating freely about the cabin. As co-conspirator, Heisig could barely contain his excitement. But Ron was quick to temper his teacher’s enthusiasm. “We must remember,” Ron responded to Kurt, “since you are now up to your chin in this, that the project is NOT YET COMPLETED. Having a picture of a sax in space and having the world hear one being played from space are two entirely different events with as different [an] impact.” 

107 Feat Kirby McNair KarateRon McNair breaking three concrete slabs, from the article “The Physics of Karate” in Scientific American, 1979

 

Years before saxophonist Kirk Whalum delivered his unforgettable solo on Whitney Houston’s ubiquitous rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” he was an up-and-comer in Houston, Texas’s jazz scene. In 2019, Whalum is difficult, but not impossible, to get ahold of. After pecking unsuccessfully at various contact emails on Whalum’s website, I tried my friend Adrian Crutchfield, an accomplished saxophonist from Roanoke, Virginia, who spent several years as a member of Prince’s late-career eleven-piece horn section. “Do you by any chance have any leads on Kirk Whalum?” I texted. “Man, I wish!” Adrian responded immediately. “I love that dude!” I scanned Whalum’s online bio for other potential degrees of separation. Noticing Luther Vandross among Whalum’s former employers, I texted my high school friend Nandi Wagner, who lives in Brooklyn with her father Buddy Williams, a prolific studio drummer who’d also worked with Vandross. “I’m on my way home,” Nandi responded from beneath New York City. “If Buddy is awake, I’ll ask if he has a contact.” She added, “I’m sure he does because he knows everyone.” Within the hour, she sent me a screenshot of the real-time conversation with her father containing the name and number of Kirk’s manager. “Please use me as a reference,” he insisted. “He is my dear friend for many years.” 

Once I got Whalum on the phone in Memphis, my icebreaker was in the can: “So you know Buddy?” He clapped back in feigned disbelief: “Buddy Williams?! What in the world are you talking about? Yeah, that brother—we go way back, man. We’ve got some history together.” In addition to the fact that they are both Vandross alums, Williams played drums on Whalum’s Columbia Records debut, Floppy Disc, in 1985. It was in the wake of this well-regarded recording that Whalum secured a high-paying residency at the Houston nightclub Cody’s, performing six nights a week. “And not just playing live music,” Whalum clarified, “but my own music. Like, I’m sitting there in my little apartment, arranging music for my band, and writing new songs to perform.” Kirk Whalum was exactly the type of thrilling young player that Ron would have gravitated toward, and Cody’s was exactly the kind of place you would want to witness such a rising star while you still had the opportunity to experience them at close range. “I’ve come to hear you several times, and I didn’t get a chance to say hello, but I figured I would introduce myself,” Whalum recalled Ron saying the night they met. “I play saxophone too, but I’m also in the astronaut program at NASA.” 

“So, I meet a lot of people, right? But, you know, I did remember him because he was really nerdy looking and he had these really thick glasses—like he was kind of trying to be cool? But when you’re that nerdy it’s kind of hard to be cool, you know? And so, sure enough, one time he came back and said hi, and again, as a good host, I’m supposed to remember people. So I said, ‘Yeah man, I remember meeting you, Ron. Let’s see; I know you play saxophone, but you’re also—a flight attendant?’ Now, can you imagine what that guy is thinking? This jive sax player, talking about ‘Are you a flight attendant?’ He corrected me, and he was very gracious and magnanimous, but I felt like a complete dummy—but he allowed me to make that mistake, and that kind of endeared us to each other.” 

Ron was preparing for another Challenger mission as the Houston Grand Opera was planning a monumental event to commemorate the Republic of Texas’s 150th birthday and twenty-five years of NASA operations in Houston. To invoke the future, festival organizers enlisted French New Age composer Jean-Michel Jarre to produce a concert that would set the tone for what lay ahead for Houston. During a tour of NASA, Jarre befriended McNair, who fit perfectly into his evolving vision for what would become Rendez-Vous Houston: A City in Concert. Through music, Jarre planned to tell the story of Houston’s past, present, and future in three movements. He would use the city’s skyline as a backdrop, projecting images onto buildings. There would be fireworks and pyrotechnics. He would debut his laser harp, which allowed him to trigger tones by moving his hand over skyward beams. And he would write a saxophone passage to be recorded in space by Ronald McNair and integrated into the televised concert event. 

“He didn’t rise to this challenge—he created it!” said Heisig, who now had the responsibility of getting Ron’s chops finessed for performing far more advanced music under much greater pressure. “He was suddenly faced with something that was over his head,” Heisig said. “I had to teach him four years of classical phrasing in four lessons. But he was a fabulous student, in that he just did it. Of course, we were both looking at the clock. We would literally get three hours work done in an hour on the phone—because we had no other option.” 

Unfortunately, no amount of readiness could have prepared Ron or his crewmates for the spectacular misfortune that would befall the mission.    

“Ronald died on a Tuesday,” said Harry Wright, Ron’s childhood friend from Lake City. “I was a probation officer in Florence then, and I was in the jail when the announcement came. I was supposed to be there, because the shuttle was initially supposed to have gone up that Wednesday, but they kept putting it off and putting it off. I talked to him that Saturday night—and that was the last time I talked with him. He had apprehensions about going up.” Temperatures in Florida had dropped to unseasonable lows, jeopardizing the reliability of certain shuttle components, and a string of mechanical malfunctions had plagued the vessel in the days leading up to the launch. Heisig, who was also in contact with Ron up until the night before, was hearing similar things. “Don’t worry about it,” Ron reassured him. “It’s too cold, it’s completely unsafe, there’s no way we’re launching in the morning—just sleep in.” “And one thing that haunts me,” added Heisig, “and you’ll see on the film—the astronauts coming out, Ron with a big smile, waving.” The seven mission specialists knew as well as anyone the abilities and limitations of the vessel they were about to entrust with their lives. Ultimately, the mission ended just seventy-three seconds after it began.   

The Rendez-Vous Houston concert, intended to be a celebration, became a salve for a city and nation in mourning. Jarre was reluctant to move forward but was urged by astronauts, civilians, and the surviving families alike to commence with the production. Recognizing their kinship, Cheryl McNair recommended that Kirk Whalum fill in for her husband. For Whalum’s performance, he was to be hoisted above the outdoor stage in front of Le Méridien Hotel on a cherry picker to perform the solo intended for Ron as images of the departed astronaut flashed on adjacent buildings at the city’s center. “I just asked God to use me in a way that will impact people—more than just cerebrally, but that, spiritually speaking, they would experience God in this moment.” The son of a pastor, Whalum grew up in a religious community similar to Ron’s, a commonality that Jarre keyed in on. “Play to the wonder of God’s creation from the standpoint of a person of faith,” Jarre instructed Whalum. “Jean-Michel was not a person of faith, but that was his thing,” said Whalum. “Allowing Ron to bring that into the discussion.”

The composition, “Last Rendez-Vous (Ron’s Piece),” was light and airy. Using only a human heartbeat for the rhythm track, Jarre’s sparse synth accompaniment provided a wide lane for Whalum to create an impassioned and emotive musical statement. “Like most jazz music, there was the written parts and then there was the improvised parts,” Whalum explained. “There’s this melody that Jean-Michel has penned that he feels gets at this whole idea of floating and being in outer space and being this lonely solo voice amongst all the stars. But when it came to the improvisation—as best as I can remember after thirty-five years—this section here, definitely not too busy, but just long, floating melodies that represent this individual, the wonder of it all.”

107 Feat KirbyMcNair MITRon McNair as a doctoral student at MIT, late 1970s. Courtesy of the MIT Museum

 

Since its dedication in 1995, the acreage devoted to McNair’s life has expanded from a small park beside the not-so-public library to include a bronze statue of Ron, with a granite backdrop detailing important dates and achievements in his short but rich life. In 2004, his remains were moved from Lake City’s Rest Lawn Memorial Cemetery to the complex, where an Egyptian-styled tomb and eternal flame were provided to house the town’s native son. Finally, in 2011, the former Lake City Library was transformed into the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center. In a circular botanical installation on site, seven large rocks sit equidistant along the perimeter, paying tribute to each of the astronauts. “That is our way of just acknowledging that there were seven of them,” said Clyde Bess, concluding our tour during my visit in July. “We didn’t put names on them because our position is that pretty much they all started out as those rocks. They all had, pretty much, the same features to some extent, and then they got refined. They all came into this world the same.” 

After Bess left, wishing me a safe journey home, I lingered in the parking lot to take stock of the complex devoted to Ron’s life. I wondered what buildings, monuments, gardens, and fountains had been erected to recognize the other lives lost on January 28, 1986. Are there nameless boulders in gardens afar, memorializing Ron’s untimely death? In our culture, the phrase “The Challenger” became a way to compartmentalize the loss of seven human lives, whose names and individual characteristics became indiscernible as time, like the indiscriminate South Carolina sun coaxing vines and grasses to grow wild, obscured partially, then completely, the once recognizable features in our collective loss. 

As I pulled out of the parking lot, the clouds offered a slight reprieve from the heat and I spotted two young black children approaching the statue, one on foot and one on a bike. As the second child rode lazy laps around the base of the monument, his friend climbed the concentric steps leading to Ron’s statue. The child scanned the granite backdrop, its chiseled sentences detailing Ron’s life, with a silhouette of the McNair family—Ron and Cheryl flanked by their two children, Reginald and Joy—and a rendering of Ron in mid-air, executing a flying side kick. The youngster stared up at Ron’s statue and squared up in a cartoonish karate stance, as if challenging Ron, in astronaut regalia, to a match. It was a private moment, one that revealed to me how Ronald McNair’s life, represented by a statue, a flame, and a few biographical paragraphs, could inspire a young person, wandering idly around Lake City, to place themselves in Ron’s shoes—as a black belt, or a musician, or, yes, even an astronaut. I thought of my dad, and the innocence and lack of pretense that draws him to these small towns and their people. 

“Ron told a story about the first times he went up in space,” Harry Wright had recalled. “He said he looked over at the moon; he said the moon ain’t nothing but one big ol’ rock! And there’s Mars over there, and Jupiter way over there—you can look at them and tell that there’s no life. But when you turn to look at Earth, it’s blue with a white mist around it, and any alien could look at it and tell that there’s life somewhere on that rock. He said it’s real up in space. He said there are rocks and meteorites and everything flying—they’re hitting the moon and crashing into these other planets. He realized, there’s something protecting the Earth—when he first came down, that’s when his spirituality intensified. He was a very spiritual person before, but he realized—there’s a god out there somewhere.”

“Some people found that to be a bit of a contradiction,” Ron’s brother Carl said. “Because oftentimes people think that scientists—they can’t scientifically prove the divine. But Ron was nowhere near that, I assure you. He knew on an atomic level, how everything is made, okay? Regardless, faith is something that man nor woman can define in scientific terms, it just is.

Ron’s spirituality was a common theme in my many conversations with his family members, friends, bandmates, and colleagues. On his first mission in 1984, Ron was the only crew member afforded a window seat during takeoff—the only one who could see the Earth as it disappeared below them and the heavens opened up above them. “He didn’t have some repertoire he was planning to play in space,” Shirley Jackson told me. “He felt that being in space allowed him to see Earth from a different perspective. And to see how we were really concentrated on the Earth was, to him, evidence that we were one interconnected community but with fragility, in the sense that what affects one person affects all.” Ron had hundreds of songs committed to memory, but one took on more significance once he was able to see our planet from beyond, and it’s the one he chose to play up there: “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” 

“He practiced and practiced again and I watched him, night after night, practicing those songs,” Cheryl McNair told the Virginian-Pilot in February 1986. “It wasn’t just to play the saxophone in outer space. It was to give a message, a universal message—a solution to malice that exists among us.” 


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Jon Kirby is a former editor at Wax Poetics magazine and a Grammy-nominated producer with the Chicago-based reissue label the Numero Group. He is currently compiling a complete discography of North Carolina rap singles. He last wrote for the magazine about Winston-Salem r&b singer Wesley Johnson.