On this day in 1967, Robert H. Lawrence, the first black astronaut, died in a plane crash before his mission.
Born in Chicago in 1935, Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at Englewood High School. He later went on to attend Bradley University, where he earned a B.A. in chemistry. While in college, he enlisted in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
In addition to being the first black astronaut, he was also a test pilot with over 2,500 flight hours. In 1956, he completed his training at Malden Air Force Base and became a United States Air Force pilot. By the young age of 25, he had completed an assignment as an instructor pilot for German Air Force trainees.
Soon after, he was assigned to flight test the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, a recently developed spacecraft. In NASA’s words, Lawrence “contributed greatly to the development of the Space Shuttle.”
While in the Air Force, he earned a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. In June of 1967, he was selected as an astronaut in the Manned Orbital Laboratory. This made him the first black astronaut selected for space travel.
Six months later, he was a backseat passenger, training a student pilot to learn the steep descent glide technique. The jet crashed, and the pilot ejected successfully. However, unfortunately, the plane caught on fire before Lawrence could escape. He was killed instantly and the Purple Heart was awarded to him after his death.
Lawrence’s name was inscribed on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center on December 8, 1997. The memorial honors all astronauts who have lost their lives during space missions or training.