World’s 1st Black Astronaut, Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.,
Honored by The Ohio State University
Donald J. Butz
In the mid-1960’s, the United States Air Force (USAF) was actively pursuing its own manned spaceflight initiative, under the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. On June 30, 1967, the program named four additions to the existing twelve Aerospace Research Pilots (ARP), including one Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. Dr. Lawrence, who received his Ph. D. from The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio in August 1965, was a USAF test pilot and flight instructor. Very tragically, he was killed on December 8, 1967 at Edwards Air Force Base, while flying an F-104 Starfighter as a rear-seat instructor. They were practicing steep-descents and landings such as were later employed in lifting body landings (including the space shuttle). Although both pilots ejected from the aircraft upon its crash landing, Major Lawrence did not survive. By all accounts, he was a remarkable individual, and also happened to be an African-American, making him the first such individual to become an astronaut in any space program. Since his death, and until 1997, most calls for recognition of his status as the world’s first first-such astronaut were formally ignored, including by USAF, NASA and The Ohio State University. Apparently, the issues were the definition of astronaut in the Air Force (e.g., flight above 50 miles altitude, which he never achieved) and the lack of any formal connection between the USAF and NASA space programs. NASA did not use ‘altitude’ as part of their definition of astronaut. Although he applied three times to the NASA program, he was never accepted. Gradually, through the concerted efforts of family, friends, colleagues and certain space historians, he was formally recognized as an astronaut was by USAF in late 1997. Presumably his ARP colleagues were as well, as a result of this appropriate change in definition. As part of the drive for this recognition, his MOL mission patch was flown aboard Atlantis on mission STS-86, launched September 25, 1997. On the 30th Anniversary of his death, December 8, 1997, the Astronaut Memorial Foundation (AMF) recognized his newly recognized status, and commemorated his sacrifices and achievements with a ceremony at their "Space Mirror" memorial, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center. His was the 17th name to be added to their memorial of astronauts who gave their lives during the space programs.
The September 1967 issue of "the Astrophile" listed the twelve existing "Aerospace Research Pilots" (the formal name of the MOL pilot program), along with the four who were added in June 1967. Interestingly, this very brief article on page 18 entitled "MOL Astronauts" noted that the four (who’s names were not specifically called out in the list) "…included the nation’s first negro astronaut…". Therefore, I would say the Astrophile featured one of the earliest printed acknowledgements of his new position (along with that of the other 11 MOL astronaut-pilots). Major Lawrence was born in Chicago, IL, graduated from High School at age 16, received a B.S. in Chemistry from Bradley University in 1956, and became an Air Force officer and pilot. On January 21, 2000, OSU formally dedicated the new chemistry building’s largest lecture hall as "The Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. Lecture Hall", and faculty unveiled a large plaque that will permanently declare this, along with his key achievements. Costs were borne by the faculty itself, through a series of their private donations. Chemistry Department Chairperson, Dr. Bruce Burston, served as emcee for the ceremonies, and also spearheaded the drive. Present at the dedication were his mother, Ms. Gwendolyn Duncan, his widow Mrs. Barbara Cress Lawrence, and his sister, Dr. Barbara E. Lawrence (all of whom had been at the earlier AMF event). They were given engraved versions of the plaque, plus a photographic copy of a large painting that Bradley University had earlier commissioned for their own facility tribute to Dr. Lawrence. The life and achievements of this remarkable individual were profiled in a series of very interesting presentations. His PhD work in Physical Chemistry at OSU was especially impressive, according to his faculty advisor (Professor Firestone, who first proposed a tribute in 1967) and former colleagues in the OSU Chemistry Department. Dr. Lawrence had prepared three refereed publications after completion of his master’s and Ph. D. in only four very busy years at OSU. The event was very well-attended, including by the local print and television media, as well as by top OSU officials, representatives of the Air Force, and OSU faculty and staff, plus key colleagues and a former room-mate. An endowment fund in his name was also announced, and a fund-raising campaign was initiated.
Although I learned of the event only in that morning’s edition of the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, I was able to attend the highly professional event, and produce five commemorative covers (see below). A very quick check of my collection revealed no MOL- or Lawrence- covers that I could use or show to others. As a matter of fact, I would now like to purchase covers dated June 30, 1967 and December 8, 1967, or otherwise commemorating Dr./Major Lawrence (such as the Dec. 8, 1997 AMF event). I would also like to purchase his autograph and any publications with related information. I would also appreciate citations to publications with philatelic or historical information on Major Lawrence and his MOL achievements. For those who are interested, I have some extra copies of the dedication ceremony program, as well as information on the endowment fund, that I would be pleased to provide in exchange for a five-inch by six-inch S.A.S.E.