Maj. Robert H. Lawrence’s life was tragically cut short just months after he made history. After being named the first Black astronaut by the U.S. Air Force in June 1967, Lawrence died in a plane crash in December of that year just ahead of a possible journey to the stars.
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was born on this day in 1935 in Chicago. He graduated from Bradley University with a degree in chemistry at the age of 20, After joining the Air Force ROTC, he became an Air Force pilot at 21, In 1965, he earned his doctorate in Physical Chemistry from Ohio State University.
As a pilot, Lawrence logged thousands of flight hours and in 1967, the Air Force selected him for the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, thus making the Omega Psi Phi man the nation’s first Black astronaut. Of his appointment, Lawrence said, “This is nothing dramatic. It’s just a normal progression. I’ve been very fortunate.”
During a training run in a F-104 Starfighter jet at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, Lawrence and another pilot were practicing landing techniques that would later be used for the Space Shuttle program.
The trainee crashed hard and was ejected safely but Lawrence was not as fortunate and was killed instantly. It was very likely that as part of the MOL group, which was canceled shortly after and absorbed into NASA, that he would have been part of the space agency’s Astronaut Group 7, the last selected as part of the Apollo mission era.
Achieving the rank of major in his short military career, and the only MOL member with a doctorate, Lawrence was 32.
PHOTO: Public Domain U.S. Air Force
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