- Press Release
- Oct 6, 2022
Who was the world’s first black astronaut?
By 1st Lt. Virgil W. Magee, AFSPC Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — When most people think of the first
black astronaut they think of Col. Guion "Guy" Bluford Jr. But there was
one astronaut who came before Bluford and has been largely forgotten by
Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr., a distinguished test and fighter pilot, was
one of the first to be selected for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting
Laboratory Program, which was the precursor to the NASA Space Shuttle
On Dec. 8, 1967, only months after being selected to the prestigious MOL
unit, the F-104 Starfighter jet, in which he was a co-pilot, crashed
during a training flight at Edwards AFB, Calif.
During the flight Lawrence was performing maneuvers to gather data for
use in future manned space flight programs.
At the time, the Air Force had it own objectives for space exploration
that differed from NASA’s. The MOL pilots had a rigorous standard of
aerospace flight education and proficiency equal to the NASA standards.
However Lawrence and the rest of the MOL participants were not officially
recognized as "astronauts." The evolution of the MOL and NASA programs,
combined with differences in terminology, and the passage of time,
delayed appropriate recognition of Lawrence as an astronaut and true
In 1997, the Air Force reviewed the issue and formally recognized
Lawrence’s status as an "astronaut," qualifying him for an appropriate
The Astronauts Memorial Foundation quickly and unanimously voted to
honor Lawrence, adding his name to the 16 others who gave their lives
for America’s space program, on the Space Mirror Memorial located at
Cocoa Beach. The AMF board felt it appropriate to formally honor
Lawrence on the 30th anniversary of his fatal accident.
Although Lawrence never actually flew in space, his contributions to
the space program made it possible for the development of space shuttle.
He made the ultimate sacrifice and lost his life in the service of the
nation and its space program.
[NOTE: An image of Major Lawrence is available at