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One giant leap for black history

The portrait of Robert Lawrence Jr., ‘56 hangs in Lawrence Lecture Hall in Olin Hall. He was the first black man selected for space travel and NASA recently named its cargo spacecraft after him. Photo by Tony Xu.

The S.S Robert Lawrence Jr. spacecraft was set to launch Sunday, as students and faculty gathered in Olin Hall to celebrate the legacy of a Bradley alumnus.

Though the NASA mission was scratched, the event was a chance for the campus community to recognize Lawrence’s accomplishment as the first black astronaut selected for space travel.

“Clearly he’s an amazing person and the more I hear about him the more I’m in awe,” said Edward Flint, an associate professor in the department.

The event was hosted by Bradley’s Center for STEM Education, Chemistry Club and the Mund Lagowski department of chemistry and biochemistry.

After he graduated from Bradley with a chemistry degree in 1956, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Air Force Reserves and later selected to participate in the Orbital Laboratory Space Program. He died shortly after in 1967 in an F-104 Starfighter crash at Edwards Air Force Base.

“As a woman in science, it is very inspiring to see what a Bradley alum can accomplish,” said junior chemistry major Kayla Lippincott. “In his life, he accomplished so much in a short time.”

The rocket was named in Lawrence’s honor for Black History Month by Northrop Grumman, a global aerospace and defense technology company. According to, the Cygnus, or cargo spacecraft, is meant to celebrate Lawrence’s contribution and sacrifice for science.

Five minutes before the launch, NASA announced it was scratching the mission. Former professor and department chair in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Kurt Field took advantage of the extra time to share stories with the group.

Because of his friendship with Lawrence’s son, Field was able to recall many stories about him.

“One time, he was late for his piano lesson, so he ran out on the street and was hit by a taxi cab,” Field said. “The taxi cab driver jumped out of the car and said ‘We’ve got to go get your mother’ and he said ‘No, no, no I’m late for my piano lesson.’”

Laughter filled the room as Field told the humorous story.

According to NASA, the second launch attempt will take place today at 3:43 p.m. EST and can be watched live at

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