Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr was a US Air Force officer who became the first African-American astronaut in 1967, as part of the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory programme.
Tragically, Lawrence’s promising career was cut short when he was killed in a plane crash while an instructor, before he got the opportunity to fly in space. Despite his early death, Lawrence’s contributions to space science and his achievements paved the way for future generations of diverse astronauts, leaving a lasting impact on the history of space exploration.
How did Robert Lawrence become an astronaut?
Robert Lawrence was born on 2 October 1935 in Chicago, Illinois. A chess enthusiast and model airplane builder as a child, Lawrence graduated in the top 10% from Englewood High School, and in 1956, graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry aged 20.
During his time at Bradley, Lawrence had distinguished himself as Cadet Commander in the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and received the commission of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program.
US Air Force career
Lawrence was designated as a US Air Force officer and fighter pilot aged 21, after completing flight training at Malden Air Force Base in Missouri. A year later he married Barbara Cress (with whom he later had a son, Tracey), and by the time he was 25, had completed an assignment as an instructor pilot in the T-33 training aircraft for the German Air Force.
While working on a PhD in physical chemistry from Ohio State University (which he earned in 1965, aged 25), Lawrence also studied at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Bradley became a senior US Air Force pilot, having accumulated over 2,500 flying hours, of which 2,000 were in jets. His experience led him to fly many tests in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to help NASA investigate the gliding flight of various unpowered spacecraft returning to Earth from orbit, including the X-15 rocket-plane. The flight manoeuvre data collected by Lawrence was later said by NASA to have contributed greatly to the development of the Space Shuttle.
In June 1967, Lawrence successfully completed the US Air Force Test Pilot School (Class 66B) at Edwards Air Force Base in California, and on 30 June 1967, was immediately selected and assigned by the US Air Force as a member of the third group of aerospace research pilots for their Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program (MOL). Lawrence thus became the first African-American to be selected as an astronaut for a manned space program by any national space program – and the only selected MOL astronaut with a doctorate.
Regarding the significance of his selection, Lawrence modestly said, “This is nothing dramatic. It’s just a normal progression. I’ve been very fortunate”.
Lawrence’s astronaut selection was highly significant, coming just 3 years after the 1964 US Civil Rights Act and at a time when black people still faced major racial discrimination in America – and a year before the assassination of Martin Luther King. His fellow astronaut, Donald H. Peterson, even had to publicly state that he was not reluctant to work with a black man.
Work on the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) project
NASA astronauts had already made 10 orbital flights aboard Gemini spacecraft, and had just begun the Apollo programme and the race to the moon, yet amidst the Space Race both the Soviet Union and USA were also developing manned space systems for military purposes.
Authorised in August 1965, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was a joint project between the US Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office which aimed to obtain high-resolution photographic imagery of America’s Cold War adversaries. It envisioned a series of mini-space stations in low polar Earth orbit, occupied by 2-man crews for 30 days at a time, launching and returning to Earth aboard modified Gemini capsules, practicing visual reconnaissance and communications intercepts and other national security tasks.
The MOL project would eventually lead to today’s International Space Station.
As part of his training, Lawrence had practiced steep-descent landing techniques that would become a critical part of Space Shuttle landing techniques. Known as a ‘flare’, the risky high-speed manoeuvre involved pulling the aircraft’s nose up to generate a short burst of extra lift (which slowed the descent) by sacrificing a lot of forward speed (reducing touchdown speed) just prior to touchdown. The aerodynamics were still being mapped out, and timing was crucial – too soon, and the aircraft began falling again, too fast was too late.
Lawrence had mastered this piloting task and made a number of test flights in a special two-seat F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet. On 8 December 1967, he served as an instructor for another pilot practicing the ‘flare’ manoeuvre for himself at Edwards Air Force Base, California. However, the other pilot, Major Harvey Royer, flared too late, causing the plane to strike the ground hard. The airplane then caught fire and rolled, skidding on the runway for around 610 metres.
Both men ejected – Major Royer ejected upward and sustained only major injuries, however the back seat, which had a moment’s timing delays to avoid hitting the front seat, did not eject in time. By the time it did eject, the aircraft had rolled sideways, and the ejector seat ejected sideways into the ground, killing Lawrence instantly and dragging him 23 metres from the wreck.
Lawrence was aged 32, and left behind his wife and 8 year old son.
What Lawrence would have gone on to do had he lived
During his brief career, Lawrence had earned the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Outstanding Unit Citation. After the Nixon Administration cancelled the MOL program in June 1969, seven of the younger (under 35) MOL astronauts transferred to NASA and became the NASA Astronaut Group 7. Had Lawrence lived, and since he was in that age range, it is virtually certain he also would have transferred.
All of the astronauts in that group later flew on the Space Shuttle in the 1980’s – with his promising career and brilliant academic prowess, it’s likely Lawrence would have piloted one of the early Space Shuttle missions.
Recognition and memorials
Lawrence was the first African-American astronaut, but due to his untimely death and the relative secrecy surrounding the MOL program, Lawrence’s name remained largely unknown. It wasn’t until 30 years later that NASA fully recognised his achievements.
The Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, is dedicated to American astronauts who lost their lives during or while preparing for a space mission. At the time the memorial was officially dedicated in 1991, the US Air Force defined an astronaut as one who had flown in space (at least 50 miles above the Earth) and completed astronaut training. Thus they did not officially recognise Lawrence as an astronaut at the time of his death, and his name was omitted from the memorial. Many people including Lawrence’s family, community members, and historians, felt this decision was based on racism.
In the 1990’s, concerted efforts to overcome bureaucratic barriers over the definition of an astronaut, resulted in Lawrence finally receiving proper recognition. In September 1997, the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis carried Lawrence’s MOL mission patch into orbit during the STS-86 mission, in tribute to his outstanding accomplishments as an American space pioneer. On 8 December 1997, the 30th anniversary of his death, Lawrence’s name was eventually inscribed on the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror. (His is the 17th name).
On the 50th anniversary of Lawrence’s death, NASA leaders honoured him in a large ceremony recognising his ground-breaking accomplishments, and the 13th Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, launched on 15 February 2020, was named the S.S. Robert H. Lawrence in his honour. That year, NASA also included Lawrence in a group of 27 pioneering African-American, Hispanic, and Native American astronauts that were commemorated by naming asteroids after them. Lawrence’s asteroid, Robertlawrence 92892, is located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.