Ron McNair

South Carolina native Ronald Erwin McNair was a physicist and astronaut who became the second African-American in space in 1984, and who died two years later at the age of 35 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off. Born in Lake City, McNair studied at North Carolina A&T and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a Ph.D. in laser physics in 1976. He worked at the Hughes Research Laboratory before NASA selected him for the shuttle program in 1978. McNair was also a black belt in karate and a noted saxophonist.

Jerry Zucker’s first major contribution to aerospace came when NASA used technology from his high school science project for the lunar landing module. More than 40 years later, his widow has ensured that the Zucker name will continue to carry that lofty association while supporting future breakthroughs.

Charleston businesswoman and philanthropist Anita Zucker has pledged $5 million to aerospace research and workforce development at the University of South Carolina, President Harris Pastides announced Thursday in Columbia.

The gift will fund the Zucker Institute for Aerospace Innovation and an endowed professorship in USC’s new McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research.

That center, named after Lake City native and Challenger astronaut Ronald E. McNair, was established last year thanks to a separate $5 million pledge from Lake City-born businesswoman and philanthropist Darla Moore.

Commitments in the Charleston area prevented Zucker from attending Thursday’s announcement, but she spoke to The Post and Courier from the North Charleston headquarters of her family-owned holding company, The InterTech Group.

“This is an area we’ve always had an interest in,” she said. Zucker noted that TIGHITCO, an InterTech company that specializes in composites, is now hiring and plans to open a new factory along Palmetto Commerce Parkway in the first quarter of 2013. “Obviously with the construction of our facility in the Charleston area, we’re even more interested.”

USC Provost Michael Amiridis, the former dean of the engineering school, said Zucker’s gift will boost the university’s aerospace and composite materials programming.

“It allows us to progress even faster than we were before,” he said.

Aerospace industry

The first McNair endowed professor will be Zafer Gürdal, who has been teaching most recently at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Gürdal was on hand Thursday, along with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, but won’t assume his post as technical director of the McNair Center until January.

A native of Turkey, Gürdal taught for years at Virginia Tech, specializing in composite materials, before moving to Europe where, since 2004, “he has headed a highly successful effort at Delft University to better align the aerospace program with what students need to succeed, both in academia and industry,” according to a university press release.

That’s exactly what the state and its growing aerospace industry, led by the likes of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are hoping will happen here.

Gürdal will immediately help oversee two new online asynchronous master’s programs — the state’s first master’s degree in aerospace engineering and a master’s in systems engineering management.

He also will help develop two more aerospace-related degree programs — a bachelor’s and master’s in systems design — the university expects to offer next fall, according to Wes Hickman, a USC spokesman.

The gift also will fund outreach to K-12 schools, as early childhood STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is a Zucker priority.

Boeing, which builds 787 Dreamliner airplanes in North Charleston, is not a financial backer of the McNair Center, but a company spokeswoman welcomed Thursday’s news.

“Obviously anything that enhances aerospace workers in South Carolina we’re fully supportive of,” said Candy Eslinger, the spokeswoman.

Hickman said Zucker’s pledge will be paid out over a five-year period.

“Her gift is going to an endowment, so that endowment will then support the center going forward,” he said. “The McNair chair, our development office, and others will continue to seek funding.”

Zucker philanthropy

The Zuckers came from humble beginnings, but by the time Jerry Zucker died in 2008 and Anita Zucker took over as CEO of The InterTech Group, the industrial conglomerate was one of the largest private companies in the United States.

According to research published by Wealth-X, a Singapore-based research firm, Zucker is worth $2.2 billion, making her the richest person in South Carolina.

Zucker said she became acquainted with the university’s strategic needs by serving as a member of Pastides’ President’s Initiatives Committee. “Then Darla Moore made a commitment to start the McNair Center and so that was something that piqued my interest as well,” she said.

The effort at USC, which is housed across several buildings, is just one example of how the recent arrival of Boeing and suppliers, such as TIGHITCO, is influencing educational institutions in South Carolina.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is now offering classes at Battery Creek High School in Beaufort County. Trident Technical College helps train workers for Boeing’s North Charleston factories and is looking into the possibility of building an aeronautical training institute on 28 undeveloped acres at its Rivers Avenue campus.

The USC donation is Zucker’s latest major gift to a local educational institution, following a $5 million pledge to Clemson University in June and a $1 million pledge to Trident Tech last month.

“Now is the time that we have to transform South Carolina,” Zucker said. “We have to transform education at every level, and our higher-ed institutions really need to be supported.”

Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.