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The Groundbreaking Life of the First Black Astronaut

In 1966, Robert Lawrence, Jr. had a PhD in physical chemistry and was an Air Force test pilot. That made him eminently qualified to be selected as an astronaut. And he was, making Lawrence the first black astronaut ever. However, the space program he was selected for was one you've probably never heard of: the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL).   

The Manned Orbiting Laboratory had an official mission nearly everyone could get on board with; conducting experiments in space. The program was approved in 1962 and assigned to the Air Force. A 1963 press release noted that the program’s aim was to “increase the Defense Department effort to determine military usefulness of man in space.” Astronauts were going to explore the cosmos, or, more accurately, figure out if the military even needed to be exploring the cosmos. In a space-race-obsessed America, this program was, at least publicly, another noble attempt at touching the stars.

However, what the press release left out was the program’s main mission; placing a manned surveillance satellite in space so that the U.S. could spy on the Russians. The MOL was less about star stuff than it was about spy stuff. The program’s real goal, according to NASA’s National Reconnaissance Office, was to “acquire photographic coverage of the Soviet Union with resolution better than the best system at the time.” Lawrence wasn’t just going to fly into space, he and his MOL brethren were tasked with photographing Soviet missile targets.

The MOL project ran into trouble, not the least of which was NASA's race to the moon, which overshadowed any other space project. Even though they went through training identical with NASA's, Lawrence and the other pilots selected for the MOL program were not officially recognized as astronauts until 1997. Read the story of Robert Lawrence, Jr. at Atlas Obscura.


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