Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. (October 2, 1935 - December 8, 1967) was a United States Air Force officer and the first African-American astronaut.
At the age of 16, he graduated in the top 10 percent from Englewood High School in Chicago. At the age of 20, he graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's Degree in Chemistry. At Bradley, he distinguished himself as Cadet Commander in the Air Force ROTC and received the commission of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program.
Read more about Robert Henry Lawrence, free from the Real African-American History website.
At the age of 21 he was designated as a U.S. Air Force pilot after completing flight training at Malden Air Force Base.
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 dissertation related to that part of chemistry which involved the conversion of tritium rays to methane gas.
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."
In June 1967, Lawrence successfully completed the Air Force Flight Test Pilot Training School at Edwards AFB, California. That same month he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut in the Air Force's Manned Orbital Laboratory Program, thus becoming the first Black Astronaut candidate.
Lawrence was killed on December 8, 1967, in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He was flying backseat on the mission as the instructor pilot for a flight test trainee learning the steep-descent glide technique. The pilot flying made such an approach but flared too late. The airplane struck the ground hard, the main gear failed, and the airplane caught fire. The front seat pilot of the aircraft successfully ejected upon ground impact and survived the accident, but with major injuries. By the time Lawrence ejected, the airplane had rolled onto one side and his ejection seat, with Lawrence still in it, struck the ground, killing him instantly.
During his brief career, Lawrence earned the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Outstanding Unit Citation, and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart medal.
After many years of relative obscurity, on December 8, 1997, his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.