The University of South Carolina’s new Ronald McNair aerospace research center had its formal takeoff Monday with a ceremony honoring its new director, the late astronaut’s family and three women who have donated $11 million to the new venture.
Zafer Gurdal from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands will lead the center, named after the Lake City astronaut killed in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion. The center has started offering two graduate programs and an undergraduate minor. Two more graduate programs are planned. Work on two research labs has begun.
“Today, I feel like we hit the afterburner,” USC president Harris Pastides said Monday.
Donations to jumpstart the center came from what Pastides called a Mount Rushmore of S.C. businesswomen: Charleston executive Anita Zucker, the state’s wealthiest person, who gave $5 million; Lake City financier Darla Moore, USC’s biggest benefactor, who contributed $5 million; and Marva Smalls, a television executive who splits her time between New York and Florence, who donated $1 million Monday.
“This would have been a dream that my husband would have wanted to see achieved,” Zucker said of her late husband Jerry, who founded the InterTech Group, a conglomerate of aerospace, chemical and real estate interests. “Jerry Zucker was very involved in the space program from his high school science project ... to parts we made that were on the space shuttle.”
Zucker said she would like state lawmakers to back college research centers with more money, especially after seeing the support provided by the business community.
But Moore said USC should not expect much financial help from the S.C. lawmakers in the State House, across Sumter Street from the university’s campus.
“The folks across the street are not going to be able to be players in this much because they are buried with all the problems that we have otherwise in the state,” Moore said. “This is going to be a private-(academic) partnership, and the state — as long as they don’t hurt us — we’ll do well.”
Cheryl McNair, the astronaut’s widow, attended Monday’s ceremony with their son. She said Ronald McNair planned to return to South Carolina after the Challenger mission and work at USC.
The aerospace center “is a continuation of what Ron wanted to do ... and that was to come back and be an influence to youth in the area,” she said. “He wanted to be a mentor to youth so they could understand that, you don’t have to be wealthy, you can grow up in small towns like Lake City and achieve.”