Robert Lawrence: First African American astronaut

Maj. Robert H. Lawrence standing next to an F-104 Starfighter. (Air Force photograph )

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory was a joint project of the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office to obtain high-resolution photographic imagery of America’s Cold War adversaries.

Authorized in August 1965, the MOL Program envisioned a series of mini-space stations in low polar Earth orbit, occupied by two-man crews for 30 days at a time, launching and returning to Earth aboard modified Gemini capsules.

The Air Force selected Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., on June 30, 1967, as a member of the third group of aerospace research pilots for the MOL Program.  Lawrence thus became the first African American to be selected as an astronaut by any national space program.  Of the significance of his selection Lawrence said with his typical modesty, “This is nothing dramatic. It’s just a normal progression.  I’ve been very fortunate.”

Born in Chicago on Oct. 2, 1935, Lawrence graduated from high school at 16, earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Bradley University at age 20 and became an Air Force officer and pilot.  Lawrence was a highly accomplished pilot with 2,500 flying hours, 2,000 in jets, and earned a PhD in physical chemistry from The Ohio State University in 1965, the only selected MOL astronaut with a doctorate.  He completed his studies at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in June 1967 and was immediately assigned to the MOL Program.

Formal portrait of U.S. Air Force Maj. Robert H. Lawrence. (Air Force photograph)

While serving as an instructor for another pilot practicing landing techniques later used in the Space Shuttle program, Lawrence perished in a crash of an F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet on Dec. 8, 1967, at Edwards.  Although both men ejected from the crash Lawrence did not survive, the promising career of the African American pilot-scientist suddenly extinguished.  He was survived by his wife Barbara and eight-year-old son Tracey.  Fellow MOL classmate and later NASA astronaut Don Peterson recalled in an oral history, “Bob was a super guy.  His death was a terrible tragedy.”

After the Nixon Administration cancelled the MOL program in June 1969, seven of the younger (under 35) MOL astronauts (Karol Bobko, Robert Crippen, Gordon Fullerton, Henry Hartsfield, Robert Overmyer, Don Peterson, and Richard Truly) transferred to NASA, and since Lawrence was in that age range it is virtually certain he also would have transferred.  All in that group flew on the Space Shuttle in the 1980s; it is easy to imagine that Lawrence would have piloted one of the early Space Shuttle missions. 

Because of his untimely death and the relative secrecy surrounding the MOL program, Lawrence’s name remained largely unknown for many years.

Maj. Robert H. Lawrence (second from left) with his fellow MOL Group 3 astronauts Lt. Col. Robert T. Herres, Maj. Donald H. Peterson and Maj. James A. Abrahamson. (Air Force photograph)

A concerted effort during the 1990s to overcome bureaucratic barriers over the definition of an astronaut resulted in Lawrence receiving proper if belated recognition. In September 1997, in tribute to his outstanding accomplishments as an American space pioneer, the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis carried his MOL mission patch into orbit during the STS-86 mission. The flown patch was presented to his widow. On Dec. 8, 1997, the 30th anniversary of his death, Lawrence’s name was engraved in the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which honors astronauts who made the ultimate sacrifice for their space programs. Twenty years later, on the 50th anniversary of his death, NASA leaders honored Lawrence in a ceremony attended by hundreds.

Former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden recalled that Lawrence “was involved in the development of the maneuver that would become a critical part of space shuttle landing techniques called ‘flare.’”

KSC Director Bob Cabana said, “Maj. Lawrence truly was a hero.  He took that first step setting the stage for what was to come.” His ground-breaking accomplishments more than 50 years ago continue to be an inspiration, showing that excellence knows no color.