United States Air Force Officer. First African-American Astronaut
Born and raised in Chicago, Lawrence attended Haines Elementary School and, at age sixteen, graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class in 1952. Four years later in 1956, he graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor of Science 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.
In 1965, Lawrence earned a Ph.D from Ohio State University. 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 US Air Force Test Pilot School. 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.
At age 32, Lawrence was killed in a plane crash at Edwards AFB on December 8, 1967. He was flying backseat in an F-104 as the instructor pilot for flight test trainee Major Harvey Royer, who was learning the steep-descent glide technique. Royer made such an approach but flared too late. The airplane struck the ground hard, its main gear failed, it caught fire, and rolled.
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.
During his brief career, Lawrence earned the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Outstanding Unit Citation . On December 8, 1997, his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The 13th Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, scheduled to launch February 15, 2020, is named the S.S. Robert H. Lawrence in his honor.