On June 30th 1967 the United State Air Force selected Robert H. Lawrence Jr, as a member of the third group of aerospace research pilots on the Manned Orbital Laboratory. The M.O.L. was a joint project of the National Reconnaissance Office and the USAF, with the mission of taking high resolution photo imagery of enemy locations from space during the cold war. The mini-space stations with a 2 man crew would for a month at a time in low earth orbit to spy on hostile enemy sites from modified Gemini Capsules. Lawrence’s selection made him the first African American Astronaut by any national space program.
Born in Chicago 1935 October 2nd, Lawrence finished high school at 16, earned a Bachelor’s of Science in chemistry at age 20, and later became an Air Force Officer and highly accomplished pilot logging 2,500 flying hours, and 2,000 hours in jets, and earned a PhD in physical chemistry from The Ohio State University in 1965, the only selected MOL astronaut with a doctorate.
After Lawrence completed the US Air Force Test pilot School in 1967, he was immediately assigned to the MOL program. While as an instructor for other pilots, he practiced landing techniques that was later used in the Space Shuttle program. At the end of 1967 in December, Maj. Lawrence died in a plane crash after ejecting from a F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, bringing this brilliant pilot-scientist career to an end. In June 1969 the Nixon Administration cancelled the MOL program. Because of his untimely death and the relative secrecy surrounding the MOL program, Lawrence’s name remained largely unknown for many years.
“Former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden recalled that Lawrence was involved in the development of the maneuver that would become a critical part of space shuttle landing techniques called ‘flare.’ KSC Director Bob Cabana said, Maj. Lawrence truly was a hero. He took that first step setting the stage for what was to come.”