Ronald E. McNair was the unlikeliest of heroes. As a young African-American growing up in rural Lake City, S.C., in the 1950s and 1960s, nothing was handed to him on a silver platter — quite the opposite. Yet, even as a young man, he exhibited that same courage and tenacity that the world would come to admire and remember. His early love of learning led to a relentless quest for access to the library. Successful at last, his love of reading opened up the world to him and he was soon on his way to MIT where he earned his doctorate in physics.

This launched his 1978 selection by NASA as the first black civilian astronaut.

In 1984, Dr. McNair honored the University of South Carolina by delivering a brilliant commencement address. His words inspire us still, “The road between South Carolina and space flight is not a very simple one, nor filled with guarantees … [except] those that reside in the unchallenged depths of one’s own determination. Go forth with the desire to accomplish, with the desire to contribute, with the willingness to fight.”

When the USC McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research was established in 2011, with substantial funding from another Lake City native and financier, Darla Moore, we were determined to embrace Dr. McNair’s legacy.

Approaching aerospace innovation and research with the desire to accomplish and contribute, we began by recruiting some of the world’s sharpest scientific minds. Our remarkable team includes SmartState endowed chair Kenneth Reifsnider, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and an expert in materials systems; SmartState endowed chair Brian Benicewicz, an expert in polymer nanocomposites; SmartState endowed chair Jochen Lauterbach, an expert in combinatorial discovery of advanced materials; Abdel-Moez E. Bayoumi, an expert in condition-based maintenance and life cycle monitoring, and Victor Giugiutiu, an expert in on-line health monitoring.

These leaders are quickly establishing South Carolina and USC as a national hub for the aerospace industry. We are laser-focused on four areas:

1. Stimulating innovation through cutting-edge research in advanced materials and composites. Our critical lab work includes life cycle monitoring, system design, cyber security and more. We partner with our international business associates at the Darla Moore School of Business to optimize global business strategies.

2. Advancing innovation in education and workforce development with an approved master’s degree in aerospace engineering as well as a master’s degree in engineering management. Two additional degrees, a master’s in systems design and a bachelor’s in systems design are in process. These courses are accessible online and offer on-site or remote interactions with professors, including collaborative thesis and dissertation projects at the students’ workplaces and in USC Columbia research laboratories.

3. Honoring the tenacious spirit of young Ronald McNair by embracing innovative outreach at all levels of education including K-12 collaborations with the Challenger Center, the Governor’s School of Science and Mathematics and IT-ology. Our outreach also extends to global and U.S. universities and colleges, including Trident and Midlands technical colleges.

4. Triggering economic development with exciting breakthroughs that promise safer flights with greater fuel efficiency. Our partnerships continue to expand as we join forces with both industry and government agencies to create opportunities for investment and collaboration on jointly produced technology and product development. We also support the South Carolina aerospace “cluster” through the Faber Center for Entrepreneurship and our Small Business Development Centers.

Although Ronald McNair’s inspiring career was cut short by the Challenger space shuttle tragedy, his legacy continues at the USC McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research. Today, more than ever, we understand Dr. McNair’s admonition, “The road between South Carolina and space flight is not a very simple one, nor filled with guarantees.”

Yet, at the McNair Center, there is a palpable air of discovery and excitement as we anticipate lift off.

Harris Pastides is president of the University of South Carolina.