Secret Astronauts


Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr.
United States Air Force

"MOL was particularly exciting for Bob because being in the program offered him an opportunity to do the two things he loved most—experimental science and flying."—Barbara Cress Lawrence, Maj. Lawrence's widow


Born in Chicago on October 2, 1935, Robert Henry Lawrence graduated in the top 10 percent of his high school class at 16. At 20, he obtained his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Bradley University and later earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Ohio State University. He died in 1967 during a training exercise.

Career highlights

Bob Lawrence's Air Force career began in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) when he was a teenager attending Bradley University. There he distinguished himself as a cadet commander. After graduation, Lawrence attended flight training school at Malden Air Force Base and became an Air Force pilot. He became a test pilot after training at Edwards Air Force Base in 1967, two years after earning his doctorate in physical chemistry.

During his short career, Lawrence clocked over 2,500 flight hours, mostly in jets. He tested several aircraft, including the supersonic Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. His research became instrumental in bringing space shuttles safely back from orbit. Tragically, he died just months after being selected for MOL during a Starfighter training exercise on December 8, 1967.

Lawrence was the first African-American astronaut, but it wasn't until 30 years after his death, in 1997, that NASA fully recognized his achievements in MOL. His is now the 17th name on the Astronauts Memorial Foundation Space Mirror, a monument erected at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida to honor astronauts who lost their lives during or while preparing for space missions.

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