Dr. Robert H. Lawrence Jr.; First Black Astronaut of the United States
It was on a June 30th when Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. became the first black astronaut in U.S. history.
Before you check your calendar to see if you Rip Van Winkle-d to February, relax. It’s not Black History month; you’ve not lost any time. However, it has been fifty years (1967) since Lawrence joined the elite force of Air Force astronauts, a good reason to look back on the life of a great American.
Lawrence may have had a short career as an astronaut, but he didn’t get the chance without passing all the difficult tests required for consideration. Had we not lost him so early, he would have been a great contributor to the NASA program and even the International Space Station.
Growing up Lawrence
Born in Chicago, Illinois on October 2, 1935, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. hit the ground running. He was a studious kid, finishing High School early, at age 16, in the top 10 percent of his class at.
By the time he was 20, he’d completed his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. There, Lawrence distinguished himself in the Air Force’s ROTC program ascending to Cadet Commander.
Air Force Career
After completing his undergraduate program, Lawrence entered the Air Force Reserves program, then started flight school at Malden Air Force Base. He did so well there, he transitioned to a trainer position.
The Air Force leveraged Lawrence’s skills to develop their new Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a critical aircraft in our development of spaceflight technology.
Lawrence’s 2,500 hours of flight time was part of the flight maneuver data that NASA would later use to develop the Space Shuttles.
Were that not enough, while still in the Air Force, Lawrence completed his Ph.D. in Chemistry from Ohio State University in 1965.
Two years later, Dr. Lawrence became the first black astronaut in the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL), a predecessor program to the Space Shuttle program. MOL was an orbiting platform aimed at teaching us about longer missions in space.
Many of the astronauts involved with that program went on to work with NASA.
One Sad Day
Lawrence’s instructors described him as the most intelligent and hardworking student they’d ever seen. As an instructor, it was only fitting that he brought that same passion to his work.
Six months after becoming the first black astronaut, in December of 1967, Lawrence was the backseat passenger in an F-104. He was instructing a pilot on the steep descent glide technique, a difficult maneuver no doubt. But, Lawrence was an ace in the F-104 and an excellent instructor.
We may never know exactly what went wrong, but we do know the pilot made a timing error, causing the jet to crash. He was able to eject safely, but the jet rotated as it crashed.
Because of that rotation, combined with the delayed ejection of the passenger seat, Lawrence launched straight into the ground. He died on impact, leaving behind his wife and son.
Thirty years after his death, after lobbying by space historians and other supporters, Lawrence’s name joined other astronauts on the Astronauts Memorial Foundation Space Mirror.
That memorial sits at the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida. Inclusion in the Mirror is an honor bestowed to astronauts who lost their lives in space missions or training for said missions. It’s visible to the public.
The first black astronaut to finally make it into space was a man named Guion Bluford, who flew four missions from 1983 to 1992. That was two decades after we lost Lawrence.
Today’s astronaut corps is a diverse mix of people. The International Space Station is a testament to the borderless nature of space, even a hint of the future for humanity.
Dr. Robert H. Lawrence was a contributor to that legacy.