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NASA celebrates legacy of first black astronaut
Published Wednesday, December 27, 2017
by Erick Johnson, NNPA

CHICAGO – Fifty years ago, a tragic accident ended the groundbreaking career of Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr., a Chicago native and stellar Air Force pilot who became America’s first black astronaut.

On Dec. 8, 2017, the 50th anniversary of his death, NASA honored his often-ignored legacy and contributions to the agency. The Chicago Crusader reported earlier this year about the lack of visibility of NASA’s first black astronaut and helped to raise awareness about Lawrence’s incredible journey.

In planning a story for its annual Black History Month edition, staffers discovered that little was being done to honor Lawrence, while NASA held memorials to mark the 50th anniversary of three white astronauts who perished in a fire aboard the Apollo 1 space module during a preflight test.

Born in 1935 to the late Gwendolyn Duncan and Robert H. Lawrence Sr., the future Air Force pilot was a man ahead of his time. Long before magnet and STEM programs were part of the high school curriculum, Lawrence excelled in math and science.

He graduated with honors from Englewood High School at 16 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Bradley University. He married the late Barbara Cress from the prominent Chicago Cress family and entered the Air Force at age 21 before earning a doctorate in physical chemistry from Ohio State University, becoming the first astronaut at NASA to earn a doctorate degree.

As a United States Air Force pilot, Lawrence accumulated over 2,500 flight hours. In June 1967, Lawrence graduated from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. In that same month, he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut for its Manned Orbital Laboratory program, thus becoming the first black astronaut.

Lawrence died while training another pilot, Maj. John Royer, to perform the “flare” maneuver —an operation that Lawrence had already mastered— in the F-104 Starfighter.

According to NBC News, “Lawrence's memory languished in obscurity” partly because the Pentagon only recognized someone as an “astronaut” if they actually flew to an altitude above 50 miles. However, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Va., mounted a campaign that forced NASA to put Lawrence’s name on the Space Mirror Memorial in 1997 — 30 years after his death.

The ceremony recognizing Lawrence earlier this month — although spirited at times — was a somber one for the 300 guests that included decorated NASA astronauts, dignitaries, relatives and friends who had flown and driven miles across the country to honor Lawrence at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

On the sprawling grounds of the NASA facility, they participated in a two-and-a-half hour ceremony that began at the Center for Space Education and culminated with an emotional wreath-laying ceremony at the base of the national Space Mirror Memorial, a massive black granite structure where Lawrence’s name is among those of 20 astronauts who either died in flight or in training.




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