U.S. Air Force Maj. Robert H. Lawrence was the first African American pilot selected by NASA in 1967 to be trained as an astronaut for the manned orbital laboratory program.
He was born in Chicago on Oct. 2, 1935. Robert was only 16 years old when he graduated from Englewood High School at 6201 S. Stewart in Chicago in 1952. He was an outstanding student and he was only 20 when he graduated in 1956 from Bradley University in Peoria with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering.
While a student at Bradley, Robert was a cadet commander in the Air Force ROTC program on campus and upon graduation he received his commission as a second lieutenant. He was trained as a pilot at Malden Air Force Base in Missouri in 1956-1957.
In 1958, he married Barara Cress, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Cress of Chicago. By 1961, Robert was a training instructor in a T-33 jet for the West German Air Force. In 1965, Maj. Lawrence received his Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from Ohio State University.
He flew over 2,000 hours in jets and 500 hours in prop planes and flew a F-104 Starfighter to track the glide path of the X-15 retuning from the edge of space. His reseach on deep descent later helped when space shuttle pilots had to learn that method as the best way to return from space.
Unfortunately Maj. Lawrence never flew in space. He was killed at Edwards Air Force Base in California on a training mission on Dec. 10, 1967. He was teaching another pilot in an F-104 plane. He was only 32 years old at the time of the crash.
Maj. Lawrence before his death was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Citation. Almost thirty years to the day after his death, on Dec. 10, 1997, Maj. Lawrence's name was inscribed on the Astronaut Memorial Mirror at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
In 1994, Chicago's Luella School at 9928 S. Crandon Avenue in Chicago was renamed the Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. Elementary School for Mathematics and Science to honor the scientist who was the first African-American astronaut.
At that time, Jeanella Kern, chair of the local School Council, was quoted in Jet as saying that Lawrence was a native Chicagoan "whose life serves as an excellent role model for the children at the school."
"He's the perfect example for our children. And we're very excited about our future because we're going to focus more on science and math," Kern said.