50 Years After His Death, The First Black Astronaut Is Honored By The Kennedy Space Center

Robert Lawrence Jr. helped pave the way.

50 Years After His Death, The First Black Astronaut Is Honored By The Kennedy Space Center
Photo Credit: Photo: Astronauts Memorial Foundation

| December 27 2017,

1:24 pm

On the 50th anniversary of his tragic death, Air Force Maj. Robert Lawrence Jr., finally received full honors. Hundreds gathered at Kennedy Space Center to commemorate Lawrence. If he had not died in a plane crash Dec. 8, 1967, experts say he would almost certainly have gone on to fly in space.

According to the Associated Press, those gathered included NASA dignitaries, astronauts, fellow Omega Psi Phi fraternity members, schoolchildren, and relatives of Lawrence and other astronauts who have died in the line of duty.

Lawrence was a part of a classified military space program in the 1960s called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was meant to spy on the Soviet Union. He was only 32 when his F-104 Starfighter crashed at Edwards Air Force Base in California, causing his death. 

At his commemorating ceremony, people made note that Lawrence inspired all the African American astronauts who followed him. Lawrence had a doctoral degree in physical chemistry — a rarity among test pilots — and was brilliant. He graduated from high school at age 16 and college at 20. Later, he obtained a doctoral degree in physical chemistry in 1965. 

Lawrence paved the way for Guy Bluford, who became the first African American in space in 1983, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space in 1992 and Charles Bolden Jr., a space shuttle commander who became NASA's first black administrator in 2009. Next year, the International Space Station is getting its first African American resident: NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps.

Twenty years prior, Lawrence's name was etched into the Astronauts Memorial Foundation's Space Mirror at Kennedy for the 30th anniversary of his death. However, the honor didn't come without a long bureaucratic struggle. It took years for the Air Force to recognize Lawrence as an astronaut, given he'd never flown as high as the 1960s-required altitude of 50 miles.

Robert Crippen was also part of the Air Force's program. After its cancelation in 1969, Crippen  moved on to NASA where he was pilot of the first space shuttle flight in 1981. He spoke highly of his former comrade Lawrence. 

"He had a great future ahead of him if he had not been lost 50 years ago today," Crippen said.