KEY POINTS

  • Northrop Grumman names its Cygnus spacecrafts after significant figures in human spaceflight
  • Its next Cygnus is named after Robert Lawrence Jr., the first African American astronaut
  • Maj. Lawrence was the only selected MOL astronaut with a doctorate degree
  • It took years before Maj. Lawrence got the recognition he deserves

It is traditional for Northrop Grumman to name its Cygnus spacecraft after people who played significant roles in the history of human spaceflight. For its upcoming Cygnus spacecraft set to launch next month, Northrop Grumman is honoring Major Robert H. Lawrence, the very first African American Astronaut.

“Northrop Grumman is proud to name the NG-13 Cygnus spacecraft after former astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence Jr.,” Northrop Grumman said. “Major Lawrence was selected in honor of his prominent place in history as the first African-American astronaut.”

The launch for NG-13 is targeted for Feb. 9, 2020.

For starters, Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was born in Chicago, Illinois on Oct. 2, 1935. He graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went on to earn his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Bradley University at age 20.

He soon became a highly accomplished pilot and Air Force officer, accumulating 2,500 flight hours including 2,000 in jets. He also earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Ohio University in 1965, which made him the only selected Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) astronaut with a doctorate degree.

MOL was a joint program between the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office that envisioned a series of mini space stations in low polar Earth orbit.

Unfortunately, while serving as an instructor for another pilot practicing techniques that were later used in the Space Shuttle program, Lawrence died in an F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet crash on Dec. 8, 1967.

The MOL program was, eventually, canceled by the Nixon Administration in 1969, and seven of the younger pilots under the MOL program were transferred to NASA where all of them flew on the Space Shuttle in the 1980s. Had Lawrence survived the crash, he certainly would have been transferred to NASA as well.

However, due to the secrecy of the MOL program, Lawrence remained largely unknown for many years until the 1990s when the barriers over the definition of the word “astronaut” were overcome and Lawrence finally received the recognition he deserves.

“Although his career was cut short, he paved the way for future generations of aerospace pioneers of all races highlighting the need for diversity and inclusion across the industry,” Northrop Grumman stated.

Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. Major Robert Lawrence Jr. was the first African American to be selected as an astronaut by any national space program. Photo: U.S. Air Force/NASA