Black News and News Makers in History: Dr. Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., astronaut, this week in Black history.Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., an Air Force pilot, after earning his doctorate, he was instrumental in changing pilot training manuals. He was the first African American selected for space travel, but was killed in a conspiracy-filled training accident in December of 1967. In 1989, a memorial foundation was erected in honor of those astronauts who gave their lives for the space program. Lawrence's name was not included, until after much advocacy by historian, James Oberg, in February of 1997.

At age 16, Lawrence graduated in the top ten percent of his Englewood High School in Chicago. At the age of 20, he earned a B.S. in chemistry from Bradley University in 1956. At Bradley, he distinguished himself as Cadet Commander in the Air Force ROTC and received the commission of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program.

By the time he was 25, he had completed an Air Force assignment as an instructor pilot in the T-33 training aircraft for the German Air Force. He was assigned to Furstenfeldbruck AFB near Munich where he trained pilots in the German Air Force. It was at there after a fatal accident that he recommended changing the language of instruction from English to German. He made this suggestion because flying at incredible speeds left little time for pilots to translate information from the language in which it had been delivered to their native language. He reasoned that, if they were instructed in their native language reactions, would be more automatic, permitting responses that were more rapid and perhaps avoiding tragedy.

He was a senior USAF pilot, accumulating well over 2,500 flight hours—2,000 of which were in jets. Lawrence flew many tests in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to investigate the gliding flight of various unpowered spacecraft returning to Earth from orbit, such as the North American X-15 rocket-plane. NASA cited Lawrence for accomplishments and flight maneuver data that "contributed greatly to the development of the Space Shuttle."
In 1965, while in the Air Force, Lawrence earned a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Ohio State University. His dissertation related to that part of chemistry which involved the conversion of tritium rays to methane gas.

In June 1967, Lawrence successfully completed the Air Force Flight Test Pilot Training School at Edwards AFB, California. That same month he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut in the Air Force's Manned Orbital Laboratory Program, thus becoming the first African American Astronaut candidate.

He died on December 8, 1967, at Edwards Air Force Base in California before the start of his space mission when his F-104 Starfighter jet, in which he was the instructor pilot for a flight test trainee learning the steep-descent glide technique. The pilot flying made such an approach but flared too late. The jet struck the ground hard, the main gear failed, and the airplane caught fire. The front seat pilot of the aircraft successfully ejected upon ground impact and survived the accident, but with major injuries. By the time Lawrence ejected, the airplane had rolled onto one side and his ejection seat, with Lawrence still in it, struck the ground, killing him instantly.

During his brief career, Lawrence earned the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Outstanding Unit Citation, and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart medal.

After many years of relative obscurity, on December 8, 1997, his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Robert H. Lawrence School in Chicago's Jeffrey Manor neighborhood is named in his memory.

Excerpts and compilations from http://www.anothershadeofcolor.com and Wikipedia.


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