Fifty years ago, a tragic accident ended the groundbreaking career of Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., a Chicago native and stellar Air Force pilot who became America’s first Black astronaut.
On December 8, 2017 – the 50th anniversary of his death – NASA honored his often-ignored legacy and contributions to the agency.
Earlier this year, the Chicago Crusader reported about the lack of visibility of NASA’s first Black American astronaut and helped to raise awareness about Lawrence’s incredible journey.
In planning a story for its annual Black History Month edition, Chicago Crusader staffers discovered that little was being done to honor Lawrence, while NASA held memorials to mark the 50th anniversary of three, White astronauts who perished in a fire aboard the Apollo 1 space module, during a preflight testing.
The Crusader story lauding Lawrence’s achievements was published in dozens of Black newspapers after the National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA) carried it on its newswire.
Born in 1935, the future Air Force pilot was a man ahead of his time. Long before magnet and STEM programs were part of the high school curriculum, Lawrence excelled in math and science.
He entered the Air Force at age 21 before earning a doctorate in physical chemistry from Ohio State University, becoming the first astronaut at NASA to earn a doctorate degree.
As a United States Air Force pilot, Lawrence accumulated over 2,500 flight hours. In June 1967, he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut for their Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, thus becoming the first Black astronaut.
Lawrence died while training another pilot, Maj. John Royer, to perform the “flare” maneuver – an operation that Lawrence had already mastered – in the F-104 Starfighter.
According to NBC News, “Lawrence’s memory languished in obscurity” partly due to the fact that, the Pentagon only recognized someone as an “astronaut” if they actually flew to an altitude above 50 miles.
However, in 1997, Lawrence’s name was mounted on the Space Mirror Memorial –30 years after his death, NBC News reported.
The ceremony recognizing Lawrence, earlier this month – although spirited, at times – was a somber one for the 300 guests that included decorated NASA astronauts, dignitaries, relatives, and friends, who had flown and driven miles across the country to honor Lawrence at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The Chicago Crusader is a member publication of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Learn more about becoming a member at www.nnpa.org.