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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in the Space Program

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Robert H. Lawrence Jr.

Air Force Maj. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was the first African American chosen to be an astronaut. He died in a 1967 plane crash. Photo couresty of the U.S. Department of Defense.

The first African American selected to become an astronaut earned his flying experience in the U.S. Air Force. Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., a jet pilot from Chicago, was assigned in 1967 to the military's Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. The Air Force did not coordinate with NASA, but the research did help pave the way for Skylab and the International Space Station. Though an astronaut, he never went into space himself. Instead, Lawrence, who held a PhD in Nuclear Chemistry from The Ohio State University and had completed training at the Air Force's Aerospace Research Pilot School, carried out important research for the program. Here Lawrence left an important mark, developing the landing technique later used by orbiters in NASA's space shuttle program. What else Lawrence could have accomplished will never be known; he was killed in a plane crash in December 1967, just six months after becoming an astronaut.

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