Astronaut Ronald McNair planned to retire after his second space flight in 1986 and was talking with officials about leading an aerospace program at the University of South Carolina.
But the MIT-educated physicist from Lake City was killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, shortly after liftoff. A quarter-century later, however, an aerospace program that bears McNairs name is getting off the ground at the flagship university of McNairs home state.
USC said Thursday that the McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research has received a second $5 million donation, named a director and decided on its first majors.
McNair would have approved, said his friend, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.
Today, were helping to fulfill his dream for him, Clyburn told a gathering of school, business and community leaders. The McNair Center serves as a living legacy for every precocious child who says, Why not?
USC president Harris Pastides said the aerospace center could become similar to Clemson Universitys International Center for Automotive Research. That center has corporate partners including BMW, which has a plant in Greer.
I would like the companies of South Carolina to tell us what they would like to see, Pastides said.
USC already receives about $30 million a year in grants to do aerospace-related research, Pastides added.
The aerospace center will open in the first state, outside the Seattle area, to land a manufacturing plant for aircraft-maker Boeing. That companys North Charleston facility started producing 787 Dreamliner jets last year.
Boeing has not given money to the McNair Center but says it supports its mission. A company executive was on hand for Thursdays announcement.
The aerospace center already has started some work, using a $5 million gift given last year by financier and former USC trustee Darla Moore, who also hails from McNairs hometown of Lake City.
USC has developed a lab that tests the impact of lightning strikes on composites and other materials, now being used in airplanes.
That lab is under the direction of Kenneth Reifsnider, a mechanical engineering professor who holds a specialized endowed chair that is paid for with state and private funding.
The new lab is almost finished in the SCRA/USC Innovation Center on Assembly Street and will move into the Horizon I building on USCs Innovista campus when work is finished on that buildings interior. The lab has hired three people, Reifsnider said.
On Thursday, USC said its aerospace center had received a $5 million gift from Charleston businesswoman and philanthropist Anita Zucker, the richest person in South Carolina, according to Forbes magazine.
The growth of South Carolinas economy, especially high-tech fields, is dependent upon the development of a highly educated workforce, Zucker, chairwoman and chief executive of The InterTech Group, said in a statement.
The donation will endow an institute for aerospace innovation, named after Zucker, and the McNair Chair, a lead teaching position at the aerospace center.
Zafer Gürdal from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands was named as the centers first director and McNair Chair.
He spent nearly 20 years at Virginia Tech, developing a composite materials research program, and led Delfts aerospace program, where progress was monitored, in part by, the number of start-ups and patents.
Gürdal said part of USCs allure was its proximity to Boeing. He expects the aircraft maker will want to find faster ways to fabricate the composites that it is using in planes, such as the 787, which has long backlog of orders. This is an area thats going to be booming in the next 10 years, he said.
Gürdal also has worked on composites for automobiles, a potential gateway to BMW.
The McNair Center will be housed in USCs engineering school.
The school will start offering masters degrees in aerospace engineering and engineering management in the spring, and bachelors and masters degrees in systems design in the fall. Some degrees will be available through online courses.
It will now be possible for a child captivated by flight, NASA administrator Charles Bolden, a Columbia native, said in a pre-recorded message, to stay in South Carolina, study at a top engineering school and receive an advanced degree in aerospace engineering.