Into the heavens

The International Space Station (ISS) has become a fixture in orbit above the Earth. Today it is not uncommon for astronauts to spend as much as a year at a time in space. Supplying these extended missions presented NASA and its international space flight partners with significant logistical challenges, leading to the development of the Cygnus spacecraft, an unmanned cargo capsule which launches atop an Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to deliver essential supplies to the crew of the ISS.

This Cygnus capsule flying the mission this month bears the name of Robert H. Lawrence, the Illinoisan who was the United States’ first African-American astronaut.

More than fifty years ago, just as the first Apollo missions were carrying mankind closer to placing footsteps on the moon, the Department of Defense was working on plans for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), a top secret reconnaissance program which would put into orbit a series of small space stations with two-man crews for 30-day missions. In 1967, Air Force Major Robert H. Lawrence was selected as one of the aerospace research pilots for the MOL program, making him the first African-American chosen for the space flight program.

Lawrence had been born in Chicago in 1935 and attended Englewood High School, where he graduated at the age of 16. Even though he graduated early, he stood amongst the top ten percent of his class academically. He then went on to study at Bradley University in Peoria, where he ran track, was a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, and earned a degree in chemistry in 1956.

With America in the midst of the Cold War, Lawrence completed the Air Force ROTC program at Bradley and went into the Air Force as a second lieutenant assigned to a pilot-training mission in West Germany. He accumulated more than 2500 flying hours during his Air Force career, most of them in jet aircraft. Along the way he continued his studies of physical chemistry and completed a doctoral degree.

USAF Maj. Robert H. Lawrence (second from left)
with fellow MOL Group 3 astronauts
Lawrence graduated from the Air Force’s test pilot school in 1967 and was accepted on that same day into the MOL program, one of sixteen pilots chosen. While the Apollo spacecraft were splashing down to water landings in the Pacific Ocean, NASA was in the early stages of developing a re-entry procedure that would allow spacecraft to land like airplanes, thus making them reusable: the beginning of the space shuttle concept. As a test pilot Lawrence was an obvious choice for this assignment.

Major Lawrence was modest about the honor.

“This is nothing dramatic,” he said. “It’s just a normal progression. I’ve been very fortunate.”

On December 8, 1967, Lawrence was aboard a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet training another pilot in this new landing method at Edwards Air Force Base in California when the aircraft crashed. Both pilots ejected, but Lawrence was killed. He was 32 years old.

The MOL program remained classified and was eventually cancelled two years later. Many of the program’s astronauts transferred to the space shuttle program, and seven of them flew on the space shuttle in the 1980s. It is likely that had he lived, Lawrence would have been among them.

Due to the secrecy of the MOL space flight program, Lawrence’s accomplishments as the first African-American astronaut were not well known for nearly 30 years. That all changed in 1997, when astronauts flying aboard the shuttle Atlantis carried with them into space Lawrence’s MOL mission patch, which was later presented to his family. Later that year, on the 30th anniversary of his death, his name was the 17th added to the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, honoring his sacrifice along with the other astronauts who gave their lives in the process of space exploration and discovery.

“Major Lawrence truly was a hero,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of his death. “He took that first step setting the stage for what was to come.”

Also speaking at the ceremony was former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, a retired astronaut who was the first African-American to lead the space agency.

“His leadership was recognized early,” Bolden said. “In his days in the Air Force ROTC program at Bradley University he was selected as a cadet commander.”

Early in 2020, the Cygnus’ manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, announced that its next mission would be named for Lawrence, an honor he will share with such astronauts as John Glenn, Deke Slayton, John Young and Roger Chaffee. The flight’s cargo would include an electron microscope and five science experiments.

“Lawrence made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the space program,” said a statement from the company. “Although his career was cut short, he paved the way for future generations of aerospace pioneers of all races highlighting the need for diversity and inclusion across the industry.”

“It is the company’s tradition to name each Cygnus after an individual who has played a pivotal part in the legacy of human spaceflight,” the statement continued.

When the mission was announced on January 20, 2020, the excitement at Lawrence’s alma mater, Bradley, was evident.

The Peoria university never forgot its famed alumnus. The year he died, the school created a memorial scholarship in his honor, and in 1988, Bradley established the Robert H. Lawrence Endowed Lectureship. His portrait is displayed in a conference room which also bears his name. The university planned a watch party for students and faculty to observe the launch of the spacecraft.

“He was a remarkable person,” said Associate Professor Dr. Michelle Fry, Chair of the Mund-Lagoski Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Bradley. “Even in a short life, he accomplished so much and he’s left a legacy at Bradley that persists.”