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Northrop Grumman Names Cygnus Spacecraft for First African-American Astronaut
The first African American to be selected as an astronaut is being remembered with the naming of a space station cargo capsule. It was set to launch during Black History Month this year.
The 13th Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft has been christened for Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., who in 1967 was chosen for the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. The S.S. Robert H. Lawrence was scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) atop a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on February 9, 2020.
“Northrop Grumman is proud to name the NG-13 Cygnus spacecraft after former astronaut Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr.,” according to Northrop Grumman on its website on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 20, 2020.
“Major Lawrence was selected in honor of his prominent place in history as the first African-American astronaut.”
An experienced pilot with a doctorate in physical chemistry, Lawrence flew test flights that later helped to inform the landing performance of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters. On June 30, 1967 he was chosen as a member of the third group of USAF aerospace research pilots in preparation for the MOL, which was then planned as a crew-tended, reconnaissance platform in Earth orbit.
Six months later, on December 8, 1967, Lawrence, 32, was tragically killed in the crash of an F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet.
Had Lawrence lived, he may have transferred with other MOL candidates to NASA’s astronaut corps after the USAF program was canceled two years later. The move could have led to him being the first African American to fly into space, a distinction that fell to Guion (Guy) Bluford in 1983, launching aboard the eighth flight of the space shuttle.
“Lawrence made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the space program,” notes Northrop Grumman.
“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.”
In 1997 Lawrence was honored by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation (AMF) with the addition of his name to the Space Mirror Memorial at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 2018 artist Tavares Strachan and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art strove to raise awareness about Lawrence’s life by launching ENOCH, a small sculpture-satellite that featured a gold bust of the late MOL candidate.
Flying the second of at least five missions under Northrop Grumman’s Commercial Resupply Services-2 (CRS) contract with NASA, the S.S. Robert Lawrence has delivered science, supplies, and equipment for the space station’s Expedition 61 and 62 crews. Among the payloads launching on the NG-13 Cygnus have been a tissue and cell culture facility and the seeds needed to cultivate radishes in the station’s Advanced Plant Habitat facility.
The S.S. Robert Lawrence has also supported combustion experiments after being unloaded of its cargo and departing the station, prior to its own fiery demise during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
The christening of the S.S. Robert Lawrence carries forward a custom that began in 2013. “It’s the company’s tradition to name each Cygnus after an individual who has played a pivotal part in the legacy of human spaceflight,” Northrop Grumman explains.
Other astronaut namesakes have been David Low, Gordon Fullerton, Janice Voss, Deke Slayton, Rick Husband, Alan Poindexter, John Glenn, Gene Cernan, John Young and Roger Chaffee. The most recent Cygnus, which launched in November 2019 and was scheduled to depart the space station on January 31, 2020, was named the S.S. Alan Bean after the Apollo 12 moonwalker and Skylab commander.
An additional Cygnus was named the S.S. J.R. Thompson after a former company executive.
Log onto collectSPACE to see Northrop Grumman's mission patch for the S.S. Robert H. Lawrence's NG-13 flight to the space station: collectspace.com/news/news-012220a-northrop-grumman-ng13-robert-lawrence.html.
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