1st African American Astronaut

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.

(October 2, 1935 -December 8, 1967)

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., was a United States Air Force officer and the first African-American astronaut.

Major Lawrence was born on October 2, 1935, in Chicago, Illinois. At the age of 16, he was a graduate in the top 10% of Englewood High School.

At the age of 20, he became a graduate of Bradley University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry. In addition, while a student at Bradley University, he distinguished himself as Cadet Commander of the Bradley Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and, upon graduation, received the commission of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program.

At the age of 21 he had become an Air Force pilot after completing flight training at Malden Air Force Base.

At the age of 22, he married the former Ms. Barbara Cress, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Cress of Chicago. As he approached the age of 26, he had completed an Air Force assignment as an instructor pilot in the T-33 training aircraft for members of the German Air Force.

At the age of 30, Major Lawrence earned a Doctorate Degree in Physical Chemistry from Ohio State University during which time his grade point average (GPA) was above 3.5. His dissertation related to that part of chemistry which involved the conversion of tritium rays to methane gas.

At the age of 31, he served two roles in the Air Force; that of an Air Force pilot and also a research scientist in the Air Force Weapon’s Laboratory at Kirkland Air Force Base, New Mexico. While still in the Air Force, Lawrence earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Ohio State University in 1965.

At the age of 32, Major Lawrence was a senior pilot with over 2,500 flying hours, 2,000 of these in jet aircraft. He tested several aircraft, including the supersonic Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. His research became instrumental in bringing space shuttles safely back from orbit.

Major Lawrence successfully completed the Air Force Test Pilot Training School at Edwards Air Force Base in June 1967 and was selected to become an astronaut in the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) and therein becoming the First African American Astronaut on June 10, 1967. The Manned Orbital Laboratory Program was a precursor to the Shuttle Program.

Tragically, just six months later, in December of 1967, Lawrence was the backseat passenger flying as in instructor to a student pilot learning the steep descent glide technique. The pilot flying the F-104 made an approach to land but flared too late, causing the jet to crash. The pilot of the plane ejected successfully, however, by the time Lawrence ejected the plane had rolled onto its side and was on fire. Lawrence was killed instantly. The Purple Heart was posthumously awarded to Lawrence.

On December 8,1997 Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr.’s name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Memorial was dedicated in 1991 to honor of all astronauts who have lost their lives on space missions or training for missions.

References Researched for Post:

nasa.gov

pbs.org

amfcse.org

airspacemag.com

blackpressusa.com

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