A Chicago native who broke racial barriers in space exploration will receive a major posthumous honor. According to Peoria Public Radio, NASA named a spacecraft after Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr., the first Black person selected to be an astronaut.
Lawrence—a Bradley University alum who studied chemistry at the Illinois-based institution—entered the United States Air Force after graduating in 1956. Following the completion of U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School, in 1967 he was one of 16 individuals who were selected to serve as astronauts in the USAF’s Manned Orbital Laboratory program. The appointment was historic as he became the U.S.’ first African American astronaut. Sadly, Lawrence never got the opportunity to travel to space. He lost his life in an F-104 Starfighter crash that happened at an air base in Kern County, California the same year.
Lawrence’s legacy has prevailed through Black space and aviation pioneers who followed him including Guion Stewart Bluford Jr., Bernard A. Harris Jr., and Mae Carol Jemison. His alma mater created a scholarship and named a conference room on campus in his honor. In 1997 Lawrence’s name was engraved in Kennedy Space Center’s Astronauts Memorial Foundation Space Mirror.
“There have been a large number of African Americans in the space program, I think even from very early on. It’s just that they weren’t given the recognition,” said Dr. Michelle Fry who sits at the helm of Bradley University’s chemistry department. “So they were recruited and mentored, but they weren’t given the recognition. And it took a long time for Major Robert Lawrence to receive the recognition, as well.” Bob Cabana, Director of the Kennedy Space Center, told Aerotech News that Lawrence “took that first step setting the stage for what was to come.” The spacecraft was named the “S.S. Robert H. Lawrence.”