Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. Becomes First African American Astronaut

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 Air Force Flight Test Pilot Training School at Edwards AFB, California. That same month he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut in the Air Force's Manned Orbital Laboratory Program, thus becoming the first African-American astronaut.

Lawrence was killed on December 8, 1967, in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, California. 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, the main gear failed, and the airplane caught fire. The front seat pilot of the aircraft successfully ejected upon ground impact and survived the accident, but with major injuries. By the time Lawrence ejected, the airplane had rolled onto one side and his ejection seat, with Lawrence still in it, struck the ground, killing him instantly.

During his brief career, Lawrence earned the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Outstanding Unit Citation, and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart medal.

After many years of relative obscurity, on December 8, 1997, his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In June l967, Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. was named the first African-American astronaut, though he never made it into space. Several months later, on December 8, Lawrence died when his F-104 Starfighter jet, in which he was a co-pilot/passenger during a training flight, crashed at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

United States Air Force Major Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., was the first African American chosen by NASA to be an astronaut. He was a senior USAF pilot, accumulating well over 2,500 flight hours--2,000 of which was in jets. Major 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. His research was instrumental in proving the steep-descent gliding concept that would later be employed with the Space Shuttle.

In June 1967 Lawrence successfully completed the Air Force Flight Test Pilot Training School at Edwards AFB, California. That same month he was selected by NASA as an astronaut in the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program, thus becoming the first African American astronaut. The MOL project would eventually lead to today's International Space Station.