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On June 30, 1967, Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., was the first African-American to be designated as an astronaut by any national manned spaceflight program. (credit: US Air Force)

A hidden figure in plain sight

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A long time ago—2008, to be exact—the election of the first African-American President of the United States led some to believe that America had entered the “post-racial” 21st century. Subsequent political and social realities have, unfortunately, trumped that belief. Recently, the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures1 reminded us what could happen again through the example of the glaring incongruity of America’s 19th century racial inequities overlain on its 20th century space-age aspirations.

Fifty years ago, Lawrence became the first African-American chosen as an American astronaut—but not as a NASA astronaut.

The early Space Age corresponded to a period in America when there was no shortage of inspirational figures in the struggle for racial equality. However, one man in particular might have made such inequities more visible and thus less tolerable. Test pilot, scientist, husband, and father, and Hollywood handsome, Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., personified the change that society needed to make. But his opportunity was lost even as he reached to grasp it in one of those perverse tragedies that makes one wonder if ours is really the alternate universe.

Fifty years ago, Lawrence became the first African-American chosen as an American astronaut—but not as a NASA astronaut. A graduate of the US Air Force’s two-part Experimental Test Pilot Course and Aerospace Research Pilot Course at Edwards Air Force Base, California, Lawrence was selected in the third and final group of “aerospace research pilots” for the Air Force’s semi-secret Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) reconnaissance program,2 America’s other manned space program.

MOL envisioned a series of five two-man mini-space stations repeatedly orbiting low over the Soviet Union during their 30-day missions while its pilots took high-resolution photographs of secret military facilities. The program was announced by the Department of Defense in December 1963, and then studied for nearly two years before it was authorized by the Johnson Administration in August 1965. But when MOL was delayed for budget and technical reasons, unmanned satellites became so capable that it was cancelled in June 1969 by the Nixon Administration without a single flight.

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was a joint project of the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office to obtain high-resolution photographic imagery of America’s Cold War adversaries. (credit: Douglas Aircraft Company)

Robert Lawrence had been a something of a prodigy in his youth.3 Born in Chicago on October 2, 1935, he graduated in the top ten percent of his Englewood High School class by the age of 16. Before he turned 20 years old, he earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Bradley University, where he also earned a commission in the Air Force. A year later, in 1956, he completed pilot training. By the age of 25, in 1960, Lawrence had completed an Air Force assignment as an instructor pilot for German air force trainees. By 1965, he had accrued 2,500 hours of flight time, 2,000 of them in jets.4 While he was logging flight hours, he was also doing graduate work, and in 1965 he earned his PhD in physical chemistry from The Ohio State University. He then assumed a research position at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico while continuing to serve as a fighter pilot.

Even then Lawrence was a public figure. In December 1965, a newspaper in Albuquerque ran an article5 which reads as if it were copied from an Air Force press release, describing his inclusion among the 25 finalists for the second group of MOL pilots, out of 500 applicants.6 The article highlighted his scientific and piloting credentials—but never mentioned his race. Unfortunately, his credentials, while newsworthy, were not sufficient for the test-pilots-only MOL cadre; Lawrence was not a test pilot, so he was not among the five men selected in June 1966.

It has been reported7 that Lawrence’s astronaut application was rejected by NASA twice, but the source didn’t provide any further information. Many sources attribute all 1960s astronaut selections—and rejections—to NASA, regardless of the reality. Lawrence was probably technically eligible for two NASA astronaut selections, the first in 1963 and the second in 1966. Unlike MOL, NASA accepted non-test pilots as well as test pilots starting in 1963. However, in 1963, Lawrence was midway through his four-year doctoral studies at The Ohio State University8 and may not have wanted to interrupt that work. As an Air Force officer, his application would have been submitted through that service’s chain of command instead of directly to NASA.

If Lawrence applied in late 1965 for NASA’s 1966 selection while he was a candidate for the second MOL group, the Air Force would have had to have supported his simultaneous application to its own astronaut corps and to NASA’s, something that the service apparently did not do for other candidates in 1966.9

NASA published statistics10 on the total number of applicants received by the December 1 deadline (351), the number of applicants with the minimum qualifications (159), the number of those who were civilians (59) and military (100), even the number of women who expressed interest (6), but there is no information on whether any persons of color applied. Nineteen pilots were selected; 140 other qualified applicants were not.

If Lawrence was rejected twice by NASA, that was not necessarily a reflection on him alone: of the 42 astronauts chosen by NASA from 1962 to 1967, 11 had applied at least twice, including one who applied three times before being selected.11 In later decades, some NASA astronauts succeeded only after many more rejections.12

The Air Force didn’t refer to its MOL pilots as “astronauts” in an effort to give them a low public profile in contrast to NASA’s well-known astronauts, but, as the first black astronaut, Lawrence attracted attention.

Nevertheless, after eleven years as an Air Force pilot, Lawrence graduated from test pilot school and was immediately assigned to MOL as an Air Force astronaut. Interestingly, he and the other three selectees were students in the same test pilot class,13 Class 66B, so they were all apparently being fast-tracked for their MOL assignments. Public announcement of the new MOL astronauts was made at a low-key, introductory press conference in Los Angeles on Friday, June 30.14

The Air Force didn’t refer to its MOL pilots as “astronauts” in an effort to give them a low public profile in contrast to NASA’s well-known astronauts, but, as the first black astronaut, Lawrence attracted attention. Unlike previous press coverage, articles about the new MOL pilots focused both on Lawrence’s accomplishments and on his race. Asked at the post-selection press conference in Los Angeles if he had met any opposition to his new appointment because of his race, he answered that he was not aware of any. When fellow selectee Donald Peterson was queried whether he would have any “feelings” about going up in a two-man capsule with Lawrence, he smiled and said, “no sir, we roomed together last night and didn’t have any problems.” Lawrence added that, if he should get to fly in space with Peterson, “well, I’d be quite pleased with that.”15

Peterson and Lawrence travelled around the country together to meetings with contractors working on MOL.16 The program had many secret aspects so they wore civilian clothing on these trips and sometimes carried false credentials. As Peterson recalls, “The rest of us were unknown, and we could travel on false ID, and nobody… had any idea who I was.” But “the press… knew him on sight, and it becomes much harder to run a secret program when one of your guys is a high interest to the media, and he really was for a while. He kind of shunned that… to try to shut some of that down. We always worried that we’d show up at some place and somebody would recognize him and make a big to-do about it.”

Sometimes it wasn’t that Lawrence might be recognized but that just the circumstances surrounding him were noteworthy. Peterson says that, once, when he and Lawrence stopped at a service station in the northern United States, the young attendant, “looked us all over real good, and came over quietly and said, ‘FBI?’ We were both young men with military crew cuts, wearing trench coats because it was cold. And I said, ‘No.’ He stood around a minute and said, ‘CIA?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Oh, okay,’ like, ‘I know you are, but that’s all right.’ I know he’d been watching Bill Cosby and Bob Culp,” the stars of I Spy, a 1960’s TV spoof about a mixed-race team of jet-setting spies.17 “But it was really hilarious.”

Beyond that, there was the mood of the times. Peterson, a native of Mississippi and familiar with the segregationist history of the American Deep South, noted that, in those days, it was unusual to see young white and black men together.

“There were restaurants that wouldn’t serve him, and there were restaurants that wouldn’t serve me. Nobody ever really threw us out or threatened violence, but they’d just ignore us,” Peterson remembers.

Tragically, Lawrence died in a crash of an F-104 supersonic jet on December 8, 1967,18 just six months after he was assigned to MOL, in the back seat while another test pilot practiced specialized landing techniques for a future-concept spacecraft. “Bob was a super guy. His death was a terrible tragedy,” says Peterson.

Eighteen months later, on Tuesday, June 10, 1969—a day still remembered as “Black Tuesday”19 by its pilots and engineers —the MOL program was cancelled by the Nixon Administration, leaving the 14 remaining aerospace research pilots without a launch. Soon, NASA accepted the seven who were younger than 36 years old into its astronaut corps.20 Lawrence would have been among them.

America’s first opportunity to fly a black man in space was lost not with Lawrence’s death, but in October 1963.

Nonetheless, the real societal impact would not come until a black astronaut actually flew in space. Popular media of the day took note of that absence. Comedians like Nipsy Russell21 and Tom Patterson22 and even the cast of the Broadway musical Hair explored the comic irony of a black man in the all-white space program.23 The TV medical drama The Bold Ones inexplicably sent a black astronaut to the Moon for the sake of its storyline.24

But with the Apollo program winding down and 47 more senior astronauts already in the queue ahead of them, the prospects of flying in space for the MOL transferees were little better than those of their slightly older colleagues who had not been transferred.

America’s first opportunity to fly a black man in space was lost not with Lawrence’s death, but in October 1963. That is when Air Force test pilot Edward J. Dwight, Jr., was not chosen to be one of NASA’s fourteen new astronauts—along with nearly 300 white pilots who had also applied but were not chosen.25 Only two years older than Lawrence, and encouraged and fostered by the Kennedy Administration,26 Dwight graduated in test pilot Class 62C in April 196327 and then completed the post-graduate course in the fourth class of the Aerospace Research Pilots School (ARPS, in its final class before it was combined with the standard test pilot course) in December 1963,28 along with soon-to-be-NASA-astronauts David Scott and Theodore Freeman, eventual NASA astronaut James Irwin, and soon-to-be MOL pilots Michael Adams and Lachlan MacLeay. This was nine months before MOL was announced, two years before it was authorized to proceed by President Johnson and four years before Lawrence was included in the MOL pilot cadre.

In 1963, Capt. Edward J. Dwight, Jr., was the first African-American to be considered for selection as a NASA astronaut. (credit: US Air Force)

Dwight was not the Air Force’s first black test pilot, but he seems to have been only the third. The first was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, John L. Whitehead, Jr., in 1957.29 The second may have been Joseph C. Watts in 1960, who then had a career as a test pilot for the Air Force and the Army, then for Bell Aircraft Co. and other companies.30 Lawrence was the fourth. The next black Air Force test pilot appears not to have graduated until 1972, the fifth only in 1977, and the sixth in 1984.31

The popular press referred to Dwight as an astronaut-in-training32 and even as “the first Negro astronaut”33 because he graduated from ARPS. The whole purpose of the aerospace research pilot training program was to prepare pilots as potential astronauts in one of the nation’s space programs, either the Air Force’s or NASA’s. But of the 40 other graduates, only 13 were ever assigned to the MOL or NASA astronaut corps or to the Air Force’s X-20 Dyna Soar program,34 that service’s manned space program before MOL.

At the time, Dwight said there were no racial barriers for anyone who wanted to be in space.35 “We guys in this space business are joined together in a brotherhood,” he said, adding that he was “treated just like everybody else.”

Nobody cares what color a man is here. All that counts is whether you can do the job… Flying changes a man’s personality… his ideas. He becomes a new and very high type of individual…who is above drawing petty lines of racial distinction.

However, instead of soaring into in space, Dwight felt disinvited by the Johnson Administration shortly after Kennedy’s assassination. He finally resigned from the Air Force in 1966, after submitting a final report observing that, to become an Air Force astronaut, a black man would need to be a fighter pilot and have a doctorate, not just a bachelor’s degree.36 After turns as an IBM engineer, an aviation executive, and a restaurateur, he became a successful and wealthy realtor and an influential sculptor.37

The impact of Lawrence as a black man in space may not have been appreciably greater than what happened in his absence.

It is interesting to speculate that, if Dwight had been selected by NASA along with Scott and Freeman in 1963, he might have flown on one of the last five Gemini missions or on an early Apollo mission. Of his would-be astronaut classmates, the first to fly, Scott, reached Earth orbit in March 1966; the last, Alan Bean, landed on the Moon on his first mission in November 1969. The final spaceflight by anyone in the 1963 group—Bean’s second flight—was in 1973.

Instead, Dwight left the Air Force and his space aspirations behind at the same time as Lawrence was—knowingly or not—following his recommendations and becoming so well-qualified he couldn’t be rejected. Dwight’s experiences were well-known and were probably the basis for some of the questions Lawrence was asked at the press conference.

Arguably, if the Johnson Administration is to be blamed for Dwight’s failure to become an astronaut, it must also be credited with Lawrence’s success. The fact that Dwight was the only black man publicly acknowledged to be in the 1963 NASA competition supports the conclusion that Lawrence did not apply that year when he was mid-way through graduate school, and thus that he was not rejected by NASA then.

Lawrence’s fellow MOL pilots who transferred to NASA waited over a decade for their flights aboard the Space Shuttle. The first was Robert Crippen, co-pilot on STS-1 in April 1981, after a wait of almost twelve years. The last were Peterson and Karol Bobko on STS-6 in April 1983, just before Crippen’s second flight on STS-7. If Lawrence had survived to be a shuttle co-pilot, as were six of the seven MOL transferees, he might have flown as early as STS-1, instead of Crippen, or as late as STS-7 in June 1983, as Crippen’s co-pilot instead of a more junior astronaut selected in 1978. Or he might have been a non-pilot “mission specialist” astronaut as Peterson was on STS-6 in April 1982 or on STS-7, again instead of a 1978 selectee.

Even in that case, the impact of Lawrence as a black man in space may not have been appreciably greater than what happened in his absence. The first African-American who actually flew in space, Guion Bluford, was an Air Force pilot (but not a test pilot) with a doctorate in astronautics and aeronautics—just the type of person Dwight had predicted. He was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1978 and flew as a mission specialist on STS-8 in August 1983—just seven shuttle flights and less than two and a half years after Lawrence’s earliest theoretical shuttle flight.

The second, Ronald McNair, a PhD physicist, flew as a mission specialist astronaut in February 1984, and the third, Fred Gregory, an Air Force test pilot (who, in 1971, was one of the earliest black graduates of the US Navy test pilot school38 in a pilot-exchange program between the two services), was the co-pilot on a flight in April 1985. After Bluford flew again in late 1985, the fourth, Charles Bolden, co-piloted the last successful Shuttle mission before the Challenger was lost in January 1986, with McNair aboard. In 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison, a physician-astronaut, was the first African-American woman to fly in space. Since then, men and women of color have not only crewed many shuttle missions but even commanded them, and have risen to the highest levels in NASA: Gregory as acting administrator and Bolden as administrator.

However, America’s early delays in launching an African-American astronaut ensured that the first black man in space was not even a United States citizen. Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez, a Cuban air force pilot, visited the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station in September 1980 as a “guest cosmonaut” on Soyuz 38 in a capsule-swap mission piloted by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko.39 That was three years before Bluford flew, but eight years after Lawrence’s first conceivable opportunity in the MOL program, and fourteen years after Dwight might been a Gemini astronaut, if history had unfolded differently in either case.

No black person has launched aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle since Tamayo-Mendez did, but 38 years later, the next one to do so will be Jeanette Epps, a NASA astronaut en route to her half-year tour of duty on the International Space Station in 2018.40

As an unsuccessful candidate for the public space program, Dwight was able to move beyond the disappointment and enjoy a series of successful careers and a satisfying life while working against racial inequity. But as a lost member of a cancelled secret space program, Lawrence was a hidden figure to everyone except dedicated space historians.

Spaceflight does not discriminate among people who dare it, neither in its rewards of endless vistas and physical lightness nor in the remorseless forces of nature that, when controlled, deliver them into space and home again, but when let loose can kill swiftly and violently.

Long deserving of wider appreciation, Lawrence remained largely unacknowledged until a sequence of event sled to his posthumous recognition. This came only with significant effort by space historians and enthusiasts. In particular, James Oberg helped persuade the Air Force to reclassify its MOL pilots as astronauts-in-training in 1997,41 and then prodded the Astronaut Memorial Foundation to add Lawrence to its Florida monument to fallen astronauts on the 30th anniversary of his death.42 The desire to avoid even the appearance of racial discrimination was a powerful motivator for both organizations.

Twenty years later, on June 24, 2017, in a ceremony at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston in honor of the 50th anniversary of his selection as the first African-American astronaut, Robert Lawrence reminds us of the ability of even a hidden figure to inspire us by his example.

Lawrence 50th anniversary logo
The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, Texas, commissioned renowned astronaut patch designer Tim Gagnon to create this commemorative logo for the 50th anniversary event recognizing the selection of Major Lawrence. (credit: Tim Gagnon)

Spaceflight does not discriminate among people who dare it, neither in its rewards of endless vistas and physical lightness nor in the remorseless forces of nature that, when controlled, deliver them into space and home again, but when let loose can kill swiftly and violently. Of the 20 people who have already died in spacecraft in flight, only two have been black men. Those numbers will inevitably increase as more and more people fly in space. It will be people like Robert Lawrence, embodying the characteristics that space exploration demands, who will always accept its challenge.


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