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Lawrence, Robert Henry,

(02 October 1935–08 December 1967)
  • Caroline M. Fannin

Lawrence, Robert Henry, Jr. (02 October 1935–08 December 1967), aviator and astronaut, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Gwendolyn Annette Williams Lawrence, a civil servant, and Robert Henry Lawrence, Sr., a disabled veteran. While Lawrence and his sister were quite young, their parents divorced. Their mother married Charles Duncan, who worked as a Veterans Administration underwriter and in periodicals circulation. Robert H. Lawrence, Sr., remained a strong influence in his children's lives.

Lawrence, a bright and self-disciplined youngster, attended Haines Elementary School in inner-city Chicago. The family was far from affluent, but the Duncans provided support and intellectual stimulation, nurturing Lawrence's interests in chess, model airplanes, and chemistry. Summers spent at the home of family friends near St. Louis, Missouri, allowed the children to enjoy country surroundings and trips to baseball games and nearby Lambert Airfield. During the school year in Chicago, visits to museums, concerts, or the zoo were regular weekend events.

At the age of twelve Lawrence entered Englewood High School. He excelled in chemistry and as a long-distance runner, winning city championships in mile and half-mile races. He graduated in 1952, aged sixteen, in the top 10 percent of his class. He then enrolled in Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois. There he earned a B.S. in chemistry and distinguished himself as a cadet lieutenant colonel in the university's Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. Upon graduation in 1956, at the age of twenty, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.

Following completion of his flight and flight instructor training, Lawrence was assigned to Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base near Munich, Germany. There he served as a fighter pilot and as a flight instructor for pilots in the German air force. After a fatality occurred during training, Lawrence recommended that the language of instruction be changed from English to German. He reasoned that the pilot trainees could react more rapidly in emergencies if instructed in their native language. The change proved successful, impressing both the student pilots and the German government with Lawrence's acumen.

On 1 July 1958 Lawrence married Barbara Cress, also of Chicago, whom he had first met six years before. They had one son. Lawrence returned to the United States in 1961 and enrolled in a joint program of Ohio State University and the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB). He earned a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Ohio State in August 1965. His dissertation explored the conversion of tritium beta rays to methane and ethane gas.

During the 1960s national attention focused on the American space program and on civil rights issues. In 1963 the U.S. Air Force captain Edward J. Dwight, Jr., enrolled in the Aerospace Research Pilot School (ARPS) at Edwards AFB, California, amid much fanfare. Many assumed that Dwight would be selected for astronaut training and eventually would be the first African American in space. However, Dwight was not selected for aerospace projects either by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or the air force. Lengthy eligibility disputes and charges of discrimination blighted Dwight's career, and he resigned from the air force in 1966.

After he received his doctorate, Lawrence was assigned to Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, as a research scientist at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. He accumulated more than 2,500 flight hours, of which 2,000 were in jet aircraft. He applied twice to join NASA's astronaut training program without success. He then was accepted by the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB. In June 1967, upon his successful completion of ARPS training, Lawrence was named to the air force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program.

The air force's space flight program complemented but was not coordinated with NASA's Mercury and Gemini programs. A precursor to the International Space Station program, the MOL program was to equip two astronauts for a thirty-day Earth orbit. MOL pilots and NASA astronauts also conducted extensive test flights in various high-performance jet aircraft. Lawrence's research investigated the gliding flight of unpowered aircraft landing from a high orbit. The unpowered steep-descent glide became the landing technique later used by NASA's space shuttle orbiters.

On 8 December 1967, only six months after he joined the MOL program, Lawrence was copilot of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter during a proficiency flight consisting of a set pattern of steep-descent approaches. The plane crashed on landing. Both officers ejected from the aircraft. The pilot, Major Harvey Royer, sustained serious injuries but survived; Lawrence was killed.

Lawrence was the only MOL pilot killed in the line of duty, but he was the ninth to die in America's combined aerospace programs. Five NASA astronauts were killed in earlier experimental flight tests, and on 27 January 1967 Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Chaffee, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and Lieutenant Colonel Edward H. White were killed in a flash fire during a test of the Apollo I rocket on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy (Cape Canaveral), Florida.

In June 1969 the MOL program merged with NASA's space program, and the seven MOL astronauts who were under thirty-six years of age were transferred to NASA. Had Lawrence lived, he would also have been eligible for transfer to the NASA program.

After Lawrence's death, no minority astronaut candidates were announced until 1978, when an astronaut class of thirty-five included three African Americans, Colonel Guion S. Bluford, Jr., Dr. Ronald E. McNair, and Colonel Frederick D. Gregory; the first Asian American, Colonel Ellison S. Onizuka; and six women, among them Dr. Shannon W. Lucid, Dr. Judith A. Resnick, and Dr. Sally K. Ride. Bluford became the first African American to go into space in 1983. Also in 1983 Ride was the first woman in space. Four members of that 1978 group, McNair, Onizuka, Resnick, and Major Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, perished in the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986.

Although informally recognized as the nation's first African-American astronaut from the time of his selection for the MOL program, Lawrence was not officially designated an astronaut by the air force until January 1997. On the thirtieth anniversary of his death, in December 1997, Lawrence's name was added to the Astronauts Memorial Foundation Space Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Dedicated in 1991, the Space Mirror Memorial honors astronauts who died on American space missions or during mission training.


Biographical information on Lawrence is in Khephra Burns and William Miles, Black Stars in Orbit (1995), a juvenile work based on numerous interviews with African American astronauts and members of their families; Betty Kaplan Gubert et al., Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science (2001); and J. Alfred Phelps, They Had a Dream: The Story of African-American Astronauts (1994). Information on NASA's astronaut recruitment program is in Joseph D. Atkinson, Jr., and Jay M. Shafritz, The Real Stuff (1985). Obituaries appeared on 9 Dec. 1967 in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Evening Star.