Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.

Major Lawrence was born on October 2, 1935, in Chicago, Illinois. At the age of 16, he was a graduate in the top 10% of Englewood High School. At the age of 20, he became a graduate of Bradley University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry. In addition, while a student at Bradley University, he distinguished himself as Cadet Commander of the Bradley Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and, upon graduation, received the commission of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program.

At the age of 21 he had become an Air Force pilot after completing flight training at Malden Air Force Base.

At the age of 22, he married the former Ms. Barbara Cress, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Cress of Chicago. As he approached the age of 26, he had completed an Air Force assignment as an instructor pilot in the T-33 training aircraft for members of the German Air Force.

At the age of 30, Major Lawrence earned a Doctorate Degree in Physical Chemistry from Ohio State University during which time his grade point average (GPA) was above 3.5. His dissertation related to that part of chemistry which involved the conversion of tritium rays to methane gas.

At the age of 31, he served two roles in the Air Force; that of an Air Force pilot and also a research scientist in the Air Force Weapon’s Laboratory at Kirkland Air Force Base, New Mexico. At the age of 32, Major Lawrence was a senior pilot with over 2,500 flying hours, 2,000 of these in jet aircraft. Major Lawrence successfully completed the Air Force Test Pilot Training School at Edwards Air Force Base in June 1967 and was selected to become an astronaut (Click here to see Major Lawrence as an astronaut) in the USAF’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory and therein becoming the First African American Astronaut on June 10, 1967.

Major Lawrence’s contribution to the current space program can be found in his early work as a test pilot who flew several of the F-104 Starfighter jet aircraft approach and landings tests at Edwards Air Force Base located in California.

It had been observed in the mid 1960’s that if an F-104 was flown in a certain configuration (that is, landing gear extended, speed brakes down and drag chute open to increase the force of drag) that it could be used to test various theories regarding the gliding of a space vehicle to a landing on earth similar to that of the landing of the X-15 test aircraft. Major Lawrence, as a test pilot flew several research flights in the F-104 in an effort to test various theories related to un-powered flight that has led up to the present day design of the Orbiter that will permit it to glide from space to the landing that can be viewed on television during every Space Shuttle mission. The Orbiter , unlike a passenger jet aircraft does not have engines mounted under its wings or at the rear that an airline pilot can use to control the landing of such a large jet aircraft. At an altitude of approximately 200 miles, the Orbiter “breaks out of its circular orbit” and glides back to earth for landing. The Orbiter has to land successfully each time, because it, as previously indicated, has no engines to attempt a second approach.

This design did not instantly occur on a designer’s drafting board, but is the end result of years of research flying dating back as far as the 1950’s during which time a variety of aircraft were used to test various theories regarding un-powered flight. The most popular aircraft of this generation is the X-15. It is at this point in the evolution of a space vehicle that would have the capability of gliding to earth Major Lawrence’s contribution begins to emerge.

While Major Lawrence flew several F-104 simulated landings, the flight in which he lost his life was a flight in which he flew in the role of co-pilot and instructor pilot when the student that he was instructing lost control of the aircraft, leading to the crash that took his life.

In addition to the above, it has been pointed out that Major Lawrence was selected as an astronaut for a mission that the general public would view as the International Space Station. During the days of Major Lawrence, the program was given the name of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory.

As an astronaut, Major Lawrence emerges as one of the early pioneers of the space program by assisting in the development and testing of a variety of odd hybrid vehicles that would one day take man into space. In addition, he helped pioneer many of the astronaut training programs. If there were no individuals willing to go through the risks and dangers associated with extended space flight, there would not be a space station. The development and evolution of the many space station designs over the past 30 years was possible because of men like Major Lawrence and all of the other astronauts who had overcome the fears, risks and dangers associated with space flight.

It is both fitting and proper that we remember Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. because he gave African Americans the history wherein the early development of America’s space program cannot be written without including African Americans. In addition, major Lawrence left African Americans a strong presence and legacy in regard to the early development and evolution of America’s space program because he took the risk and paid with his life.

In this regard, African Americans have continued to play a significant part in the space program. Since the Space Shuttle became operational, African Americans have held all of the positions associated with a Space Shuttle Crew. These positions are Mission Specialist, Pilot and Commander.