Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s ‘Evolved Man of the Week’ profile. Each week in February, we will highlight a historical black male figure who embodied what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the Air Force Major, pilot, Chicago native, and the first black astronaut at NASA, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.
Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. was born October 2, 1935, in Chicago, IL. He received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Bradley University in 1956 and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant into the U.S. Air Force upon graduation at age 20. Mr. Lawrence took his flight training at Malden Air Force Base, and eventually ended up providing flight training. He logged more than 2,500 hours of flight time throughout his time in the Air Force and was instrumental in compiling flight maneuver data that was eventually used in the development of the space shuttles. Lawrence later earned a PhD. in physical chemistry in 1965 from Ohio State University.
Lawrence’s launching pad was his hometown of Chicago, where he blasted through high school and graduated at just 16 years old. Poor and Black, Lawrence faced tremendous odds against breaking into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) lily-white stratosphere, but when he did, he became America’s first Black astronaut.
Once in the Air Force, Lawrence distinguished himself as an exceptional test pilot and was among the first to be named to the USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. That mission was a precursor to today’s successful NASA space shuttle program. It was part of the operated spaceflight program the Air Force was developing. MOL was planned as an orbiting platform where astronauts could train and work for more extended missions. The program was canceled in 1969 and declassified later on.
Lawrence was killed in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on December 8, 1967, at 32 years of age. 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, its main gear failed, it caught fire and rolled. The front-seat pilot ejected upward and survived, with significant injuries. The back seat, which delays a moment to avoid hitting the front seat, discharged sideways, killing Lawrence instantly.
Had Lawrence lived, he likely would have been among the MOL astronauts who became NASA Astronaut Group 7after MOL’s cancellation, all of whom flew on the Space Shuttle. During his brief career, Lawrence earned the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Outstanding Unit Citation. On December 8, 1997, his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Today we honor Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. as our Evolved Man of the Week.