News | Feb. 22, 2022

Recognizing the first African American astronaut

By Staff

Talented and brilliant, Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. was the first African American selected for spaceflight. He was born on Oct. 2, 1935 in Chicago where he graduated from Englewood High School at the age of 16. Lawrence then attended Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, graduating with a degree in chemistry in 1956 at age 20. Upon graduation, Lawrence was commissioned as second lieutenant in the Air Force, and attended pilot training at Malden Air Force Base in Missouri. Following training, Lawrence served until 1961 as a fighter pilot and instructor, stationed at Furstenfeldbruck Air Force Base near Munich in West Germany. Returning to the U.S., Lawrence entered the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, and later was assigned as a nuclear research officer at Kirtland Air Force Base. Lawrence continued to pursue his education and graduated from Ohio State University in 1965 with his doctorate in nuclear chemistry. In June 1967, Lawrence completed his training at ARPS at Edwards and was selected for MOL, earning him the designation as the first selected African American astronaut.

Major Lawrence portrait

Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.
Source: CSNR Reference Collection

Only six months later, Lawrence was killed in a tragic accident—at the young age of 32—during a training flight Dec. 8, 1967 in an F-104 aircraft crash at Edwards Air Force Base. Lawrence was flying in the backseat, serving as an instructor pilot for a flight test trainee learning the challenging but essential steep-descent glide landing technique. During landing, the plane hit the ground hard, and the plane rolled and caught fire. Although the pilot successfully ejected upward and survived the crash, Lawrence’s back seat ejected to the side and he was killed instantly.

Read more about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) here