Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr.

America's First Black Astronaut

Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr.

Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., one of the first Black astronauts, entered the corps in June 1967. He had a bright future ahead of him but never made it into space. He began his training and was putting his experience as a pilot and chemist to work as he also trained on support aircraft.

Several months after he began his astronaut training, Lawrence was a passenger on a training flight aboard an F104 Starfighter jet when it made a too-low approach and hit the ground. Lawrence died instantly during the December 8 mishap. It was a tragic loss to the country, and to his wife and young son. He was awarded a Purple Heart posthumously for his service to his country. 

The Life and Times of Astronaut Lawrence

Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. was born October 2, 1935, in Chicago. He received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Bradley University in 1956 and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant into the U.S. Air Force upon graduation at age 20. He took his flight training at Malden Air Force Base, and eventually ended up providing flight training. He logged more than 2,500 hours of flight time throughout his time in the Air Force and was instrumental in compiling flight maneuver data that was eventually used in the development of the space shuttles. Lawrence later earned a PhD. in physical chemistry in 1965 from Ohio State University. His interests ranged from nuclear chemistry to photochemistry, advanced inorganic chemistry, and thermodynamics. His instructors called him one of the most intelligent and hard-working students they'd ever seen.

Once in the Air Force, Lawrence distinguished himself as an exceptional test pilot and was among the first to be named to the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. That mission was a precursor to today's successful NASA space shuttle program. It was part of the manned spaceflight program the Air Force was developing. MOL was planned as an orbiting platform where astronauts could train and work for longer missions. The program was canceled in 1969 and declassified later on.

Some of the astronauts assigned to MOL, such as Robert L. Crippen and Richard Truly, went on to join NASA and fly other missions. Although he applied twice to NASA and didn't make into the corps, after his experience with the MOL, Lawrence may well have made it in on a third try, had he not been killed in the flight accident in 1967.


In 1997, thirty years after his death, and after much lobbying by space historians and others, Lawrence's name was the 17th added to the Astronauts Memorial Foundation Space Mirror. This memorial was dedicated in 1991 to honor all U.S. astronauts who lost their lives on space missions or in training for missions. It's located at the Astronauts Memorial Foundation at the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida and is open to the public.

The African-American Members of the Astronaut Corps

Dr. Lawrence was part of a vanguard of Black Americans to join the space program. He came along early in the program's history and hoped to make a lasting contribution to the country's space efforts. He was preceded by Ed Dwight, who selected as the first African-American astronaut in 1961. Unfortunately, he resigned due to government pressure. 

The honor of being the first Black to actually fly in space was Guion Bluford's. He flew four missions from 1983 to 1992. Others were Ronald McNair (killed in the space shuttle Challenger accident), Frederick D. Gregory, Charles F. Bolden, Jr. (who has served as NASA administrator), Mae Jemison (first African-American woman in space), Bernard Harris, Winston Scott, Robert Curbeam, Michael P. Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, B. Alvin Drew, Leland Melvin, and Robert Satcher. 

Several others have served in the astronaut corps, but have not flown in space. 

As the astronaut corps has grown, it has grown more diverse, including more women and astronauts with a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. 

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Greene, Nick. "Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr." ThoughtCo, Feb. 6, 2021, Greene, Nick. (2021, February 6). Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).