As America honors Black History Month through February, Sunday’s scheduled sunset launch of the next Northrop Grumman Corp. Cygnus mission to the International Space Station (ISS) appropriately memorializes Robert H. Lawrence, the U.S. Air Force major who became the first African-American to be selected for astronaut candidate training and might—had the hands of fate turned more kindly—have been selected into NASA’s own corps and become one of the early Space Shuttle test pilots.
Lawrence, who died in 1967, will lend his name to the NG-13 Cygnus mission, which is slated to rise from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., atop a Northrop Grumman Antares 230+ booster at 5:39 p.m. EST Sunday. It will spend two days in transit before it reaches the space station, where it will spend the next three months. Aboard the cargo ship is an estimated 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies for the incumbent Expedition 62 crew of Commander Oleg Skripochka and Flight Engineers Drew Morgan and Jessica Meir.
Watch the launch LIVE HERE starting at 5:00pm EDT on Feb 9
Lawrence joins a growing cadre of other giants of the aerospace world who have been recognized with Cygnus names; a tradition which began with the spacecraft’s original builder, Orbital Sciences Corp., which later merged in 2014 with Alliant TechSystems to become Orbital ATK, Inc., before being purchased by Northrop Grumman in 2018. All but three Cygnuses have been named for deceased veteran astronauts, with three Moonwalkers memorialized, as well as six shuttle flyers and dual recognition for “Original Seven” Project Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton. In fact, unflown Apollo 1 astronaut Roger Chaffee, former NASA Deputy Administrator James “J.R.” Thompson and now Lawrence are the only Cygnus honorees who never went into space.
Lawrence is a significantly poignant choice, and not only because February is Black History Month. Born in October 1935 in Chicago, Ill., he graduated in the top ten percent of his high school class and had earned a degree in chemistry from Bradley University in his home state by the age of 20. Whilst undertaking his undergraduate studies, Lawrence was a cadet commander at Bradley’s Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) detachment and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force reserve program. Training at Malden Air Base in Malden, Mo.—a site occupied today by Malden Regional Airport—saw him complete initial flight instruction as an Air Force pilot. Married at 22, he became a T-33 instructor pilot for the German Air Force by 25 and gained a PhD in physical chemistry from Ohio State University before he turned 30.
As a rising star in the Air Force, he logged over 2,500 hours of flying time, including 2,000 hours in jet aircraft. His tested the F-104 Starfighter and his work on the gliding flight characteristics of unpowered re-entry vehicles was later recognized by NASA as having contributed significantly to Space Shuttle development. Lawrence completed test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in June 1967, and was assigned the very same month to the third group of astronaut candidates for the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL) program, a classified space station concept. Also in Lawrence’s group was Don Peterson, who would go on to become one of the first shuttle spacewalkers.
Asked about the significance of his selection, Lawrence was characteristically modest. “This is nothing dramatic,” he told an interviewee. “It’s just a normal progression. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Six months later, in December 1967, Lawrence was flying backseat in an F-104 with a flight test trainee, who flared too late as he approached the runway. The Starfighter hit the ground and caught fire; the trainee ejected and survived, but Lawrence was killed. It was a sad loss for one of America’s most promising would-be astronauts.
Two years later, several of Lawrence’s MOL team-mates—including future shuttle commanders Gordon Fullerton and Hank Hartsfield—were hired by NASA as astronauts. All went on to fly early shuttle missions. “The double tragedy was that Lawrence was the first African-American to qualify as an astronaut,” wrote NASA’s Deke Slayton in his autobiography Deke, co-authored with space historian Michael Cassutt. “When we took some of the MOL pilots into NASA, he would certainly have been among them.”
“Major Lawrence was selected in honor of his prominent place in history as the first African-American astronaut,” noted Northrop Grumman in their NG-13 naming announcement. “Lawrence made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the space program, but his legacy lived on through several of his fellow MOL astronauts who joined NASA and flew Space Shuttle missions following the cancelation of the program. 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.”
Current plans call for the NG-13 SpaceShip Robert H. Lawrence to liftoff at 5:39 p.m. EST Sunday, five minutes after local sunset, which promises a spectacular view for viewers along the Virginia coastline as the Antares 230+ booster—an uprated variant of the original rocket, embarking on its second flight—powers uphill from its picturesque seaside launch pad. The 230+ vehicle boasts structural enhancements in its inter-tank region between its liquid oxygen and kerosene tanks to permit greater airframe flexibility during first-stage flight. This is particularly vital during the passage through maximum aerodynamic turbulence (“Max Q”), when the first-stage engines were previously throttled down to avoid over-exerting the airframe. With these enhancements, the Antares 230+ can support 100-percent thrust performance throughout Max Q, which in turn allows it to more efficiently deliver payloads to low-Earth orbit. Additionally, its Castor-30XL second stage is structurally “lighter” than its predecessor, the Antares 230.
This particular Cygnus is the second mission of the second-round Commercial Resupply Services (CRS2) contract, signed with NASA back in January 2016 to provide ISS services from 2019 through 2024. Aboard the spacecraft are a range of investigations ranging from biology to biotechnology and from technology development to demonstrations which will span current and forthcoming ISS expeditions.
The NASA-sponsored Mobile SpaceLab is a tissue and cell-culturing facility with quick-turnaround capability to perform sophisticated biology investigations in the microgravity environment autonomously—without any crew interaction—for up to a month. Also aboard NG-13 is the Mochii miniature scanning electron microscope for in-situ spectroscopic imaging and compositional analysis of particles in the ISS atmosphere, which have been known to trigger vehicle and equipment malfunctions, as well as impairing crew health. Mounted in the aisle of Japan’s Kibo lab, Mochii will permit the identification of small particles which cannot be sampled and sent back to Earth, a capability which is expected to pay dividends on future deep space missions.
The OsteoOmics experiment will examine the mechanisms responsible for bone mass-loss (a phenomenon experienced by astronauts, as well as the elderly on Earth) by studying the cells responsible for forming (osteoblasts) and dissolving bone (osteoclasts). It is expected that a better understanding of the cellular mechanisms underpinning microgravity-induced bone loss may yield insights into preventions of a wide range of disorders such as osteopenia and osteoporosis. And the Phage Evolution investigation will study the effects of the high-radiation microgravity environment on bacteriophages—viruses which specifically invade and destroy bacteria, used extensively to combat infectious diseases—in an effort to develop alternatives to antibiotics.
Following its arrival in the vicinity of the space station, two days after launch, the NG-13 Cygnus will be grappled by the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 robotic arm, controlled by Expedition 62 astronauts Morgan and Meir. The cargo ship will then be berthed at the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) port of the Unity node, where it is slated to remain until 11 May. When it departs, ahead of a destructive re-entry on 25 May, Cygnus will also support the fourth set of Spacecraft Fire Experiments (SAFFIRE), which explores fire development and growth in various materials and environmental conditions, as well as fire detection and monitoring and post-fire clean-up capabilities. Previous SAFFIRE investigations were conducted near the end of three Cygnus missions from July 2016 to June 2017, burning blends of cotton-fiberglass, Nomex and acrylic glass with varying flow velocities.
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