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Astronaut Robert Lawrence remembered

Robert Lawrence, the first African American astronaut, graduated from Bradley in 1956 with a degree in chemistry.
photos by Bradley University Marketing

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of alumnus Robert Lawrence, who is best known as the first African American astronaut.

In 1956, Lawrence graduated from Bradley with a degree in chemistry. According to emeritus professor Kurt Field of the Mund-Lagowski Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Lawrence was well-liked on campus and was a hard-working individual during his time at Bradley.

“[Lawrence] became Cadet Commander of Bradley’s Air Force ROTC program, a position that revealed the respect he had from his superiors and his fellow cadets,” Field said. “He also worked in the cafeteria at Bradley to help supplement his educational expenses.”

After graduation, the Air Force stationed Lawrence in Germany. During his time there, Lawrence taught German pilots to fly U.S. planes by speaking to them in German, a language he had studied while attending Bradley.

He later returned to the U.S. to attend Ohio State University, where he received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1965. Lawrence was selected to join the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory program and became the first African American astronaut.

Lawrence’s success in the field demonstrated his passion for education and service, according to Field.

“Robert Lawrence’s career reveals that he had a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to serve his country,” Field said. “He was a dedicated, focused and energetic young man. He chose a major that required a sound working knowledge of mathematics and physics as well as good reading and writing skills.”

In December 1967, Lawrence was killed at the age of 32 in a crash at Edwards Air Force Base, located in California. That same year, the Major Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. scholarship was established at Bradley in his honor.

Many other tributes have been established by Bradley to honor the memory of Lawrence. According to Field, everyone involved with the chemistry department knows Lawrence’s story as some of the academic areas are named for him.

“All in the department are familiar with Robert Lawrence’s accomplishments,” Field said. “Our students know who he is and his accomplishments because all of them take at least one class in Olin Hall room 164; this classroom bears his name, and his portrait is displayed on the north wall.”

In 1988, the Lawrence Visiting Lectureship was established at Bradley, which brings visiting scholars to the university who serve as role models to all students, especially minority groups.

Field said it is with great pride to be able to say Lawrence is a member of the Bradley community.

“Bradley has a substantial number of alumni, like Robert Lawrence, who have distinguished themselves nationally and internationally,” Field said. “We are proud of them, and their successes serve to remind us and our students that great things await once they have left the Hilltop. I’m sure that if Robert Lawrence were able to speak to our students today, he would stress the importance of time-management skills.”

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