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Shuttle Astronaut Remembered as Local Hero

Charles Hillinger's America

May 01, 1988|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

JACKSON, Miss. — In the bigger-than-life portrait by Mississippi artist Marshall Bouldin III, astronaut Ronald E. McNair grasps a large camera with fish-eye lens as he floats weightlessly in the spaceship Challenger.

The painting of McNair, one of seven astronauts killed when the Challenger blew up shortly after launch Jan. 28, 1986, is the center piece of the Ronald E. McNair Space Theater in Jackson's Davis Planetarium, the largest planetarium in the Southeast.

McNair, who was killed in his second flight in the same space capsule, never lived in Mississippi but became an adopted son of the state.

The black astronaut visited Jackson several times during the last two years of his life. An outgoing, friendly person, he became something of a local hero. He rode in the parade here honoring him and was, in his own words, a country boy. But it was the making of a unique film that first brought McNair to Mississippi.

The award-winning half-hour documentary, "The Space Shuttle: An American Odyssey," was produced by Richard Knapp, director of the Davis Planetarium, and two staff members, Don Warren, cinematographer, and Lenard Jenkins, production coordinator.

McNair, the world's first orbital cinematographer, was the film's chief cameraman. He and Bruce McCandless, second cameraman for the film, were inducted into the prestigious American Society of Cinematography for their camera work, and the documentary won the gold medal at the 1985 International Film and TV Festival in New York.

It was Knapp who proposed the idea for the space movie to NASA. "We were in the right place at the right time and had the right kind of an organization for NASA to work with--non-commercial," recalled the planetarium director. "NASA said 'yes' and cooperated all the way."

"The Space Shuttle: An American Odyssey" premiered Jan. 10, 1985, in the 60-foot-diameter domed theater now named after McNair. It has been shown here ever since, and at 13 other planetariums across the nation with 360-degree hemispherical theaters.

Jenkins worked for months with NASA engineers to provide the space camera carried aboard the Feb. 3, 1984, Challenger flight with atmospheric thermal protection. They fabricated housing to insulate the exterior camera from vibrations and extremes of hot and cold, and designed a power system for another camera inside in the crew compartment.

Using a Houston simulator, Warren began training McNair and other astronauts in the techniques of filming in the 360-degree format under weightless conditions.

"Ron McNair really got into it. . . . He was the one person most responsible for the film," Warren said.

Shot aboard the 3-million-mile, 122-orbit flight, with some sequences made on a subsequent Challenger flight in April, 1984, "The Space Shuttle: An American Odyssey" was filmed primarily by McNair, with considerable footage by McCandless.

In addition, the Jackson planetarium film makers shot several launches at the Kennedy Space Center. McNair made numerous trips from Houston to Jackson to work with Knapp, Warren and Jenkins in the planning, development and later editing of the documentary.

In the 360-degree presentation of the film, viewers have the sensation of experiencing a space flight, as Challenger blasts off, Earth slips away and the Space Shuttle streaks across the skies.

The viewer is vicarious passenger inside the crew compartment as the astronauts go about their work. There are lighthearted exchanges; McNair has a closeup of a gum-chewing astronaut and of a "Don't Panic" button tacked to a wall. The camera pans outside to Bruce McCandless, an untethered astronaut free-flying away from the shuttle in Buck Rogers fashion.

Party to the awesome voyage 170 miles above Earth, the viewer sees the capture and repair of the Solar Max Satellite, with spectacular windows on the earth below, and finally touchdown at Edwards Air Force Base.

Knapp recalled working with McNair: "We were all tremendously impressed with his intelligence, personal magnetism and energy. . . . He put so much of himself into this project. He understood what we wanted. He knew the equipment, took the initiative to raise questions, always trying to satisfy us. He had good feelings about this community. The community had good feelings about him."

"One of the touching things about this guy, he wasn't on an ego trip. No matter who you were he was interested in you," Jenkins said.

The son of an auto mechanic who never finished high school, McNair picked cotton as a youngster to help his family survive in a small back-country South Carolina town, Lake City.

He was valedictorian of his high school class, where he played saxophone in a jazz band and lettered in football, baseball and basketball. He attended North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on scholarship, graduating magna cum laude.

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