Is Starbase McNair in Strange New Worlds’ named after a fallen astronaut?
Just before a cosmic anomaly turns the Enterprise into a fairy-tale realm in “The Elysian Kingdom,” the eighth episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Captain Pike orders a course set for Starbase McNair. We never see this starbase in the episode, but its name will resonate with Star Trek fans who know the real-world history of space exploration.
The Original Series identified starbases almost exclusively with numbers alone. (Deep Space Station K-7 in “The Trouble with Tribbles” is an arguable exception.) The Next Generation and later series brought us starbases with triple digit numbers and with names, including at least one, Starbase Earhart, named after a famous hero of human flight.
I’m unable to find official confirmation as of this writing, but I’m wondering—and Trek Twitter shows I’m not the only fan who is—whether Strange New Worlds has christened the franchise’s latest starbase after another real-life hero.
Surely Starbase McNair is named in honor of the late Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair—renowned laser physicist, the second Black astronaut, and one of those tragically killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986.
Starbase McNair seems named after Challenger astronaut Ron McNair
Born and raised in South Carolina, Ron McNair earned his Bachelor of Science (magna cum laude) from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971, and his doctoral degree in physics from MIT in 1976. He distinguished himself in the then-nascent field of chemical lasers.
In 1978, NASA selected McNair as a member of its Astronaut Group 8—a class of recruits for the Space Shuttle program that included, thanks in large part to the hard work of Star Trek’s own Nichelle Nichols, three Black men and six women.
The excellent documentary film Woman in Motion chronicles Nichols’ work recruiting people not to that point represented in the Astronaut Corps. In his new book Phasers on Stun!, Ryan Britt notes “that Sally Ride, Ron McNair—and the first Black man in space, Guion Stewart Bluford, Jr.,—might not have even been in NASA if it weren’t for Nichelle Nichols” (page 120). Frederick Gregory was the third Black man in Astronaut Group 8.
McNair became the second Black man in space aboard Challenger STS-41B (February 3-11, 1984). He was the first person to operate the orbiter’s robotic arm—and the first astronaut to play the saxophone in orbit!
Heartbreakingly, not only McNair but also two other members of Astronaut Group 8—Ellison Onizuka, the first Japanese American astronaut; and Dr. Judith Resnick, America’s second female and first Jewish astronaut—died when the Challenger exploded two years later, along with the rest of Challenger’s crew: Gregory Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, and Michael Smith.
Several institutions and programs keep the astronauts’ memories alive and work to advance their legacies. The McNair Scholars Program, for example, helps undergraduate students at 151 institutions prepare for doctoral studies through research involvement and other scholarly activities.
If Starbase McNair is named in honor of Ron McNair, it wouldn’t be the first time the franchise has honored the Challenger crew. The dedication card at the top of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is, as I remember one contemporary review stating, just about the only solemn thing in the movie. And The Next Generation named one of the Enterprise’s shuttles in honor of Ellison Onizuka.
Ron McNair was inspired to pursue his scientific career, in part, by watching Star Trek. He entered NASA as a direct result of Nichelle Nichols’ recruiting. It’s only right, then, that “The Elysian Kingdom” continues the franchise’s tributes to the Challenger astronauts by naming a starbase after him.
Let’s hope Strange New Worlds confirms its tribute to Ron McNair in the near future, and maybe even pays that visit to Starbase McNair in a future episode. May it get even more viewers interested in the journey and legacy of this real-life space exploration hero.