Lawrence, Robert H. Jr. 1935–1967
Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. 1935–1967
When selected to become the first African American to enter the United States’s space program in 1967, Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. humbly regarded the appointment as, “just another of the things we look forward to in the normal progression of civil rights in this country.” Sadly, the progression was halted just six months later when Lawrence was killed in a training mission. For thirty years following Lawrence’s death, officials at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation declined to recognize him as an astronaut thus denying him the status to be included on the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 1997, however, that decision was overturned and Lawrence’s name was added to the Space Mirror, ensuring Lawrence’s rightful place in the history of the space program.
Born Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., in Chicago, in 1935, his parents divorced when he was a toddler and Robert and his older sister Barbara lived with their mother in the Good Neighbor Apartments in a poor Chicago neighborhood. While Lawrence was still a young child, his mother married Charles Duncan and Robert and his sister were raised in a loving, nurturing home where the union of accomplishments and humility were stressed, as well as independence and self-discipline. “This may sound unbelievable, but I don’t know of any occasion when I had to discipline either of my children,” Lawrence’s mother, Gwendolyn Duncan recalled to David Llores of Ebony. “They had a discipline that must have come from within.”
While in elementary school, Lawrence strayed from the stereotype of an inner-city child by developing an appreciation for model airplanes while at the same time fostering an enthusiasm for chess. “He was scholarly and serious,” the senior Robert Lawrence admitted to Llores. “As a small boy the expression on his face reflected a kind of dedication. But I didn’t consider him a precocious child.” Lawrence was also passionate about science, particularly chemistry, and each Christmas he’d request a bigger and more advanced chemistry set.
By the time Lawrence reached Englewood High School in 1948 his aptitude for science and other subjects propelled him to the top of the class. By graduation
At a Glance…
Born Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., October 2, 1935 in Chicago, Illinois; died December 8, 1967 in a training jet crash at Edwards Air Force Base, California; the son of Robert Lawrence, Sr. and Gwendolyn Duncan, a civil service worker; married Barbara Cress, 1958; children: son Tracey; Education: Bradley University, B.A., chemistry, 1956; Air Force Institute of Technology, 1961; Ohio State University, Ph.D., physical chemistry, 1965; Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School, 1967. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1956-1967.
Career : U.S. Air Force, major; astronaut.
Awards : First African American chosen for spaceflight training as one of four pilots selected to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program, 1967; Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. Elementary School for Mathematics and Science named in his honor, 1994; awarded astronaut status, 1997.
Lawrence was rated as a superior and excellent student by the faculty, graduated 17th in a class of 161, and was one of ten students voted most likely to succeed. Although Lawrence won a four-year brotherhood scholarship to Indiana University, he decided to enroll in Bradley University, whose campus was in nearby Peoria, Illinois, and major in chemistry.
While at Bradley Lawrence entered the Air Force Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) where his penchant for self-discipline enabled him to rise quickly to the rank of lieutenant colonel making him the second highest ranking cadet at the school. At the same time, in addition to his studies and various part-time jobs, Lawrence met and began to date Barbara Cress, the daughter of a Chicago doctor. Soon after receiving his bachelors degree in chemistry, Lawrence was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and a year later was assigned to an air base in Germany as an instructor pilot. Several months later, in 1958, when Lawrence’s then-fiancee Barbara was asked by her father what she wanted as a graduation present after earning her bachelors degree in psychology, she requested a trip to Germany. On July 1 of that year the two married and their son Tracey was born a year later.
Returning to the United States in 1961, Lawrence, through the Air Force Institute of Technology, entered Ohio State University as a doctoral student in physical science. Here, Lawrence’s devotion to his studies was unwavering and he maintained a grade-point average that exceeded 3.5 on a four-point scale with such challenging courses as nuclear chemistry, photochemistry, chemical kinetics, advanced inorganic chemistry, and thermodynamics. “He was probably the best graduate student I’ve ever advised,” Dr. Richard Firestone declared to Charles E. Brown and Reginald McCafferty of Jet’in 1967. “He [was] very intelligent and he worked very hard. In fact, he worked as hard as a grad student should which is unusual.... Also [he had] a lot of courage… not the kind of courage one needs to fly a jet air craft, but intellectual courage. He was quite a resourceful student, the kind who thinks for himself.”
In 1965 Lawrence earned his Ph.D. after delivering his complex doctoral dissertation entitled “The Mechanism of the Tritium Beta-Ray Induced Exchange Reactions of Deuterium with Methane and Ethane in the Gas Phase.” And while Lawrence would later play down his position as the first African American to be selected to be an astronaut, it was clear when he delivered his thesis that he understood his role as a pioneer and appreciated the efforts of those who came before him. In his dissertation he wrote: “This work is dedicated to those American Negroes who have spent their lives in the performance of menial tasks struggling to overcome both natural and man-made problems of survival. To such men and women, scientific investigation would seem a grand abstraction. However, it has been their endeavors which have supplied both the wherewithal and motivation that initiated and helped sustain this effort.”
In the mid-1960s America’s quest for space was in its infancy but also at its most enthusiastic. Lawrence, with his scientist’s curiosity and his love of flying wanted to be one of the men to explore the vastness of space and help answer the many questions sure to arise. Twice he applied to NASA but was turned down both times, despite his Ph.D. and more than 2,000 hours of flying time. Instead, he applied to the Air Force’s Aerospace Research Pilot School where he was accepted. Upon graduation, Lawrence was one of four men chosen for the Department of Defense’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), a military space station program designed to study the military implications of space flight and information gathering. Each mission would be a two-man, 30-day flight which would have begun in 1970.
In June of 1967 a press conference was held to introduce the four pilots but special emphasis was placed on Lawrence. As the first African American to be selected for space travel, Lawrence was asked if he felt he had to try harder than other candidates for the program because of his skin color. “No,” Lawrence replied as quoted in the New York Times. “I feel this is the culmination of a lot of effort that people put into preparing me for this, and I feel it is an expression of success that they should enjoy rather than I.” Lawrence went on to answer a question confirming that he faced some problems getting ahead because of his race, “but exactly what problems an individual faces is hard to say. I’ve been fortunate at certain junctures in my life. People happened to be at the right time to supply me with the necessary motivation.”
The four candidates went on to join 12 previously selected “aerospace research pilots” at Edwards Air Force Base in September of 1967 for training. Part of the six-month training included flying an F-104, described by some as “a missile with a man in it.” It was while attempting to land the plane, on December 8, 1967, that Lawrence and Major Harvey Royer, the pilot flying the plane, hit the runway too soon. The landing gear collapsed on contact and the canopy shattered as the plane dragged along the runway for 200 feet. The plane then bounced in the air again and floated above the runway for another 1,800 feet. Royer ejected and escaped with serious injuries. Lawrence ejected as well, but too low for his parachute to open and his body, still strapped into his ejector seat, landed 75 feet away from the wreck. He died instantly at the age of 31. It would be eleven years before another African American would be selected to undergo astronaut training and not until 1983 when a black man, Guion Bluford, would travel to space.
Conspiracy speculation arose and faded as to the cause of Lawrence’s death and many were still unsatisfied with the investigation. Some people were pleased that a black man would not be among those exploring this new frontier. “After Bob was killed I got a letter from some irate citizen that said they were glad he was dead because now there would be no coons on the moon,” Lawrence’s widow, Barbara, is quoted as saying in Black Stars in Orbit. “Mixed in with the sympathy cards, every once in a while you’d open an envelope and there would be a letter or a note saying how happy they were that the event had taken place.”
In 1989 the Astronaut Memorial Foundation (AMF) erected the Space Mirror Memorial in honor of those astronauts who gave their lives for the space program, but Robert Lawrence’s name was not included because he had never flown 50 miles from the Earth’s surface—one of the requirements according to NASA and the various military branches—and so technically was not considered a “real astronaut.” In 1993 and again in 1996, space historian James Oberg initiated an effort to have Lawrence’s name added to the Space Mirror but without success. Among the evidence Oberg used to persuade the AMF to include Lawrence was the fact that when the MOL project was canceled in 1969 all the officers were transferred to NASA as astronauts, as Lawrence would have had he not been killed in a training mission. In addition, a 1989 Congressional Research Service report includes Lawrence’s biography in the “astronauts” section and his name is on a list of “astronauts” who died in the course of their work. Finally in February of 1997, the Air Force officially recognized Lawrence as an astronaut, enabling the AMF to etch his name in the Space Mirror.
Burns, Khephra and William Miles, Black Stars in Orbit: NASA’s African American Astronauts, Gulliver Books, 1995.
Cassutt, Michael, Who’s Who in Space, Macmillan Publishing, 1993.
Phelps, J. Alfred, They Had A Dream: The Story of African-American Astronauts, Presidio Press, 1994.
Sammons, Vivian Ovelton, Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere Publishing Co., 1990.
Ebony, February 1968, p. 90.
Jet, July 20, 1967, p. 14; December 21, 1967, p. 6; December 28, 1967, p. 8; June 6, 1994, p. 58; February 24, 1997, p. 39.
New York Times, July 1, 1967, p. 1; December 9, 1967, p. 25.
Rocky Mountain News, February 3, 1967, p. 34A.
USA Today, November 25, 1996, p. 13A; November 29, 1996, p 12A.
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