First Black Astronaut Honored On 50th Death Anniversary


On Dec. 8, the United States' first black astronaut was given full honors on the 50th anniversary of his death. Though he did not get a chance to go to space, he was instrumental in opening the door for a more diverse astronaut corps.

50th Death Anniversary

Hundreds of people gathered at the Kennedy Space Center to commemorate Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr., America's first black astronaut. The guests who came to celebrate his life included astronauts, fellow fraternity members, NASA dignitaries, school children, and Lawrence's family members.

Lawrence was a member of a classified military space program in the 1960s which was intended to spy on the Soviet Union. However, before he even got to space, he was killed in an aircraft training exercise in 1967 when his F-104 Starfighter crashed at Edwards Air Force Base. He was 32 years of age at the time of his death.

Lawrence was given full honors at the ceremony where the astronauts who spoke stated that he would likely have gone to space had he not died in the accident.

'The Fast Track'

According to Robert Crippen who was also a member of the military space program, when the Air Force's space program was canceled in 1969, he and the other astronauts moved on to NASA where he became the pilot of the first space shuttle flight. With Lawrence's doctoral degree in physical chemistry and having graduated college at just 20 years of age, Crippen said that Lawrence was on "the fast track" and would have had a great future.

Lawrence was unknown for many years after his death but in 1997, exactly 30 years after his death, the Astronauts Memorial Foundation acknowledged him as the first African-American astronaut in NASA history and added his name to the foundation's Space Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center.

Paving The Way For Diversity

In the 1970s, NASA opened their doors to selecting African-American candidates to become astronauts. In 1978, NASA's astronaut class included Guion Bluford who was the first African-American to go to space in 1983, Ron McNair who unfortunately perished in the Challenger accident in 1984, and Fred Gregory who, among his other achievements at NASA, eventually became its first African-American deputy administrator.

Many more African-Americans went on to become notable figures at NASA and continue to do so until today. Although Lawrence did not go into space himself, his achievements paved the way for diversity in the astronaut corps and allowed those after him to make their own mark in space flight history.

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