At the age of 16, he graduated in the top 10 percent from Englewood High School in Chicago. At the age of 20, he graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry. At Bradley, he distinguished himself as Cadet Commander in the Air Force ROTC and received the commission of Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Program. At the age of 21 he was designated as a U.S. Air Force pilot after completing flight training at Malden Air Force Base. At 22, he married Barbara Cress, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Cress of Chicago. By the time he was 25, he had completed an Air Force assignment as an instructor pilot in the T-33 training aircraft for the German Air Force. In 1965, Lawrence earned a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the Ohio State University.
He was a senior USAF pilot, accumulating well over 2,500 flight hours—2,000 of which were in jets. Lawrence flew many tests in the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter to investigate the gliding flight of various unpowered spacecraft returning to Earth from orbit, such as the North American X-15 rocket-plane. NASA cited Lawrence for accomplishments and flight maneuver data that “contributed greatly to the development of the Space Shuttle.” In June 1967, Lawrence successfully completed the Air Force Flight Test Pilot Training School at Edwards AFB, California. That same month he was selected by the USAF as an astronaut in the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, thus becoming the first black astronaut. Robert Lawrence was also a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Lawrence was killed on December 8, 1967, in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He was flying backseat on the mission as the instructor pilot for a flight test trainee learning the steep-descent glide technique. The pilot flying made such an approach but flared too late. The airplane struck the ground hard, its main gear failed, it caught fire, and rolled. The front-seat pilot, ejected upward, survived with major injuries. The back seat, which delays a moment to avoid hitting the front seat, ejected sideways, killing him instantly. Had Lawrence lived he likely would have been among the MOL astronauts who transferred to NASA after the program’s cancellation, all of whom flew on the Space Shuttle. During his brief career, Lawrence earned the Air Force Commendation Medal, the Outstanding Unit Citation. On December 8, 1997, his name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
- October, 02, 1935
- Chicago, Illinois
- December, 08, 1967
- Edwards Air Force Base, California
Cause of Death
- aircraft accident