America’s space program selected several blacks to be trained as astronauts. On March 3, 1963, Edward Joseph Dwight Jr. became the first black astronaut candidate. He was dropped from the program in 1965. Robert H. Lawrence Jr. (1935–1967) was named the first black astronaut in 1963 and assigned to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. He died in a plane crash on December 8, 1967, never starting his mission. The Chicago native grew up on the city’s South Side. He received his U.S. Air Force commission and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Bradley University in 1956. He completed a doctorate in physical chemistry at The Ohio State University. He was officially recognized as an astronaut thirty years after his death. After a long bureaucratic dispute over the definition of an astronaut, in December 1997 Dwight’s name was added to the astronaut’s memorial at Kennedy Space Center. The space program had no other black astronauts until 1978, when Guion S. Bluford Jr., Frederick Drew Gregory, and Ronald E. McNair joined the program.
Though Air Force Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was named America’s first black astronaut, he perished in a plane crash in 1967 before he could go into space.