Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.

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Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.
Born(1935-10-02)October 2, 1935
DiedDecember 8, 1967(1967-12-08) (aged 32)
Alma materBradley University, B.S. 1956
Ohio State University, Ph.D. 1965
OccupationTest pilot
Space career
USAF Astronaut
RankUS Air Force O4 shoulderboard rotated.svg Major, U.S. Air Force
Time in space
Selection1967 USAF MOL Group 3
Mission insignia

Robert Henry Lawrence jr. (October 2, 1935 – December 8, 1967) was a United States Air Force officer and the first African-American astronaut.[1]

Early years[edit]

Lawrence was born October 2, 1935, in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Haines Elementary School and, at the age of 16, he graduated in the top 10 percent from Englewood High School in Chicago, in 1952. At the age of 20, he graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry. At Bradley, Lawrence became a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity[2] and distinguished himself as Cadet Commander in the Air Force ROTC and received the commission of second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program.[citation needed]

Air Force[edit]

Robert Henry Lawrence during his Air Force career

At the age of 21, he was designated as a U.S. Air Force pilot after completing flight training at Malden Air Force Base, Missouri.

At 22, he married Barbara Cress, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Cress of Chicago. By the time he was 25, he had completed an Air Force assignment as an instructor pilot in the T-33 training aircraft for the German Air Force.

In 1965, Lawrence earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Ohio State University. His doctoral thesis was "The Mechanism Of The Tritium Beta Ray Induced Exchange Reaction Of Deuterium With Methane and Ethane In The Gas Phase."[3][4]

He was a senior USAF pilot, accumulating well over 2,500 flight hours, 2,000 of which were in jets. Lawrence flew many tests in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to investigate the gliding flight of various unpowered spacecraft returning to Earth from orbit, such as the North American X-15 rocket-plane. NASA cited Lawrence for accomplishments and flight maneuver data that "contributed greatly to the development of the Space Shuttle."[1]


MOL was particularly exciting for Bob because being in the program offered him an opportunity to do the two things he loved most—experimental science and flying.

— Barbara Cress Lawrence, Lawrence's widow, about her late husband's MOL experience.[5]

In June 1967, Lawrence successfully completed the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (Class 66B) at Edwards AFB, California. The same month, he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut in the Air Force's Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, thus becoming the country's first black astronaut.

Space Mirror Memorial for Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., 1966 NASA T-38 crash
Lawrence's name inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial

Death and legacy[edit]

Lawrence was killed in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on December 8, 1967, at 32 years of age. He was flying backseat on the mission as the instructor pilot for flight test trainee Major Harvey Royer learning the steep-descent glide technique. The pilot flying made such an approach but flared too late. The airplane struck the ground hard, its main gear failed, it caught fire, and rolled. The canopy shattered and the plane bounced and skidded on the runway for 2,000 feet. Major Royer ejected upward and survived, with major injuries. The back seat, which delays a moment to avoid hitting the front seat, ejected sideways, killing Lawrence instantly. Lawrence was still strapped to his ejector seat, however, his parachute failed to open. He was dragged 75 feet from the wreck.

Had Lawrence lived, he likely would have been among the MOL astronauts who became NASA Astronaut Group 7 after MOL's cancellation, all of whom flew on the Space Shuttle.[6]

During his brief career, Lawrence earned the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Outstanding Unit Citation. On December 8, 1997, his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Archived 2009-08-10 at the Wayback Machine from the U.S. Air Force's official website
  2. ^ Epps, Henry. Great African-American Men in America history vol II. p. 62. ISBN 9781300161622.
  3. ^ Chemistry Department Scholarships Archived 2009-07-19 at the Wayback Machine from the Bradley University website
  4. ^ The mechanism of the tritium beta-ray induced exchange reactions of deuterium with methane and ethane in the gas phase
  5. ^ "SECRET ASTRONAUTS – Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr, USAF".
  6. ^ Oberg, James H. (2005-02-23). "The Unsung Astronaut". MSNBC. Archived from the original on 2011-03-07. Retrieved 2011-01-27.

External links[edit]