Crusader Staff Report
A NG-13 Cygnus spacecraft that NASA sent goods to its International Space Station last month was named after Chicago’s Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. He was the nation’s first Black astronaut whose forgotten legacy, documented in a Crusader story, compelled NASA to hold a special ceremony on the 50th anniversary of his tragic death three years ago.
The global aerospace and defense firm Northrop Grumman named its spacecraft after Lawrence in keeping with the company’s tradition of naming each Cygnus after an individual who has played a pivotal role in human spaceflight.
On February 15, SS Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. a Cygnus cargo ship was launched at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. The spacecraft carried four-tons of food, snacks and other items to an international space station that has been the temporary home of Americans Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, and Russian Oleg Skripochka. Morgan has been at the space station since July and the two others since September; they will remain on board until April. Three other astronauts returned to Earth last month from the space station.
The assignment was Northrop Grumman’s 13th delivery to NASA. Meanwhile the flight keeps Lawrence’s legacy and name in the American stratosphere.
Lawrence Jr. was born in Chicago October 2, 1935. He blasted through Englewood High School and graduated at 16. After he earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Bradley University he served in the United States Air Force as an officer and pilot. Lawrence was married to Barbara H.C. Lawrence of Chicago’s prominent Crest family.
As an accomplished pilot, Lawrence went on to accumulate more than 2,500 flight hours, including 2,000 in jets. During this time, he also earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Ohio University in 1965. His Air Force honors included the Commendation Medal and the Outstanding Unit Citation.
On June 30, 1967, the U.S. Air Force selected Lawrence as a member of the third group of aerospace research pilots, also known as astronauts, for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. This selection made Lawrence the first African-American to be selected as an astronaut by any national space program.
MOL was a joint effort between the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, authorized with a goal to obtain intelligence on the country’s cold war adversaries in the form of high-resolution images, captured by crewed mini space stations in low Earth orbit.
The achievement lifted the spirits of Black America, which was disappointed that NASA had not selected another potential Black astronaut, Ed Dwight, years earlier.
As a senior pilot, Lawrence spent much of his career with the Air Force training other pilots in cutting edge flight maneuvers and techniques. It was during one such training session that Lawrence met his untimely death just six months after being selected for the MOL program.
On December 7, 1967, while practicing landing techniques later used in the space shuttle program, Lawrence perished in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Flags on buildings in Chicago were ordered at half-staff as Lawrence’s life was celebrated during his funeral at First Unitarian Church near the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. Charles Bolden, America’s first Black NASA chief administrator, and Stephanie Wilson, the second Black female astronaut, attended the service. Another Black astronaut, Winston Scott, played the trumpet in a band that performed various jazz songs, including, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Reportedly, jazz was one of Lawrence’s favorite musical genres.
Lawrence was cremated at Graceland Cemetery on the North Side. Barbara his widow, died in 2016.
Lawrence made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the space program, but his legacy lived on through several of his fellow MOL astronauts who joined NASA and flew space shuttle missions following the cancellation of the program.
On the Bronzeville Walk of Fame, Lawrence’s name is engraved on the sidewalk next to the landmark Victory Monument in the center of South Martin Luther King Drive at 35th Street. 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.
Despite his contributions, Lawrence’s name was not on the Space Memorial at NASA’s Visitors’ Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
NASA initially did not recognize Lawrence as an astronaut, saying he didn’t fly at least 50 miles in space. Black leaders joined a campaign with NASA space shuttle/engineer James Oberg that led NASA to put Lawrence’s name on the memorial that includes other late astronauts, some of whom perished on space missions.
Though NASA did not plan to hold any special ceremony on the 50th Anniversary of Lawrence’s death in 2017, the space agency later reversed course after the Crusader published a story in its Black History Month edition that year. Lawrence’s sister, Dr. Barbara Lawrence, spoke during a ceremony attended by Lawrence’s Omega Psi Phi fraternity brothers.