First African-American Astronaut Finally Acknowledged
By Lisa E. Stafford
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 1998 Air Force Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, the first African-American astronaut, was honored recently by NASA 30 years after he died in a plane crash.
Lawrence became the 17th astronaut to be named on the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. The NASA memorial, completed in 1991, honors U.S. astronauts who died while in training or on a mission into space.
A test pilot assigned to the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program, Lawrence died in an F-104 Starfighter crash at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on Dec. 8, 1967. The pilot, Maj. Harvey Royer, ejected and survived with major injuries.
Lawrence had logged more that 2,500 flight hours and had received the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Citation.
The Air Force program was the predecessor of NASA's Space Shuttle Program. The space agency cited Lawrence for accomplishments and flight maneuver data that "contributed greatly to the development of the space shuttles."
Attending a ceremony Dec. 8, 1997, at Kennedy Space Center were Lawrence's widow, Barbara; mother, Gwendolyn Duncan; and sister, Dr. Barbara E. Lawrence. Air Force Undersecretary Rodney Coleman; Arnold Richman, chairman of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation paid their respects.
"Today he joins the brave and heroic men and women who have been similarly honored by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation -- men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country and in the cause of science," his sister said at the dedication ceremony.
At the time Lawrence died, the Air Force and NASA programs were not connected. Manned Orbiting Laboratory Program participants were not considered astronauts even though they had the same skills and the two programs eventually merged. The Air Force reviewed Lawrence's case after a request from the Astronauts Memorial Foundation on Jan. 2, 1997, and decided to raise his status to "astronaut."
"Formal recognition of Maj. Lawrence as an astronaut and brave American patriot is long overdue," said Jim DeSantis, memorial foundation president. "The foundation is reaching out to the nation to ensure that Maj. Lawrence is honored in a manner he deserves. We are inviting corporations, professional organizations and individuals to honor the nation's first African-American astronaut."
Lawrence's sister described him as "multitalented and sharply intelligent, diligent and committed."
"He worked long and hard to go the distance not with brilliant, short flashes of speed and energy, but timing, training, careful thought, tenacity and strategy, all the while remembering to balance the goals of finishing and winning. He was a champion," she said.
A Chicago native, Lawrence graduated from high school at age 16. He received his bachelor of science degree in chemistry and an Air Force ROTC commission from Bradley University, Peoria, Ill., at age 20 in 1956. He earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Ohio State University in 1965.