On December 8, 2017, a U.S. Air Force test pilot whom few people have heard of, who was never selected as a NASA astronaut, and who never made a flight into space, was honored at the Kennedy Space Center as the nation’s first African American astronaut. The honor was long overdue.
Air Force Major Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. had served on assignment from the Air Force as a pilot instructor for the German Air Force. He had a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Ohio State University. As a senior USAF test pilot, he flew more than 2,000 flight hours in jet aircraft, including a number of flights in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft, performing tests of gliding aerodynamic flight, data which would later be applicable to the design of the NASA Space Shuttle.
In June of 1967, Major Lawrence was selected by the US Air Force as one of seventeen astronaut candidates who would travel into space in the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, an early attempt to place a then-classified military space station into earth orbit.
But in June of 1969, with the astronauts in training, and the spacecraft components built and flight tested, the Air Force abruptly cancelled the MOL program without a single manned flight, citing rising costs and increasing funding constraints due to the demands of the war in Vietnam.
Seven of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory astronauts immediately transferred to NASA’s Space Shuttle Program, and all of them went on to fly on shuttle, including Navy Captain Robert Crippen, who flew four missions, and Navy Vice Admiral Richard Truly who flew two missions. With his extensive flight experience and exceptional technical education, there is no question Major Robert Lawrence was a natural fit for this elite group.
However, he never got that opportunity. On December 8, 1967, Robert Lawrence was riding as an instructor for a flight test trainee in an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, California. The trainee’s final approach was too steep and the aircraft crashed on the runway, instantly killing Lawrence.
What followed was a thirty-year delay in Robert Lawrence becoming officially recognized as an astronaut. All seven of the Air Force MOL candidates who transferred to Space Shuttle were, as was standard practice, officially declared “astronauts” when they were accepted by NASA for training.
Since Lawrence was killed long before he would have transferred, NASA couldn’t award him that title, though they thought he would merit it. But at that time the Air Force reserved their “astronaut wings” only for test pilots who had flown higher than 50 nautical miles, for example, during test flights of the joint NASA / Air Force X-15 space plane, so Major Lawrence didn’t qualify with them either.
Thirty years later, yielding to both family and political urging, the Air Force was persuaded to officially recognize Major Robert Lawrence as an astronaut. And NASA had his name inscribed on the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a magnificent structure that honors all of our nation’s astronauts who have fallen in the line of duty.
On December 8th of this year – the fiftieth anniversary of his death – astronauts, family members and government officials came together to honor Major Robert Lawrence Jr., America’s first African American astronaut, with a two-hour wreath laying ceremony at the Space Mirror at Kennedy Space Center.
During the ceremony MOL colleague and Space Shuttle astronaut Bob Crippen said, “[Robert] would have been the first black person to fly in space, and he would have been famous. And he’s still famous with a lot of us, and he is still missed today.” Another former African-American astronaut, Winston Scott, said his own Shuttle rides into orbit would not have happened if not for a trailblazers like Lawrence.
A single photo can’t do it justice, so I’ve provided a link to the Kennedy Space Center’s Space Mirror Memorial honoring the fallen astronauts.
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Images: US Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office, Astronauts Memorial Foundation