America's Outer-Space Spy Program, Its First Black Astronaut, and his Watch
On December 8th 1967, a specially modified supersonic Lockheed F-104D Starfighter – part of a United States Air Force (USAF) then-classified Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program – taxied down the runway at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB) in California. The weather, a chill 50 degrees, was accompanied by a wind speed of eight miles an hour with 20-mile visibility, perfect for flying. Strapped to the wrists of the two F-104 pilots were most likely Benrus GG-W-113's. All ideal for testing secret aircraft part of a USAF black project to place USMIL officers into outer space for 30-day reconnaissance spy missions.
The F-104 – modified to fly like the USAF’s X-15 hypersonic rocket-powered aircraft – that day was piloted by two USAF astronauts: Major Harvey Royer, operations chief at the Aerospace Research Pilot School, and seated behind him a pilot in his early 30’s, Major Robert Lawrence. Lawrence, a Black USAF pilot with 2,500 hours of flight experience (most in jet aircraft), had helped develop a novel landing maneuver, called “flaring,” which involved bringing the nose of the jet aircraft sharply up as it made a final approach to the runway.
The maneuver called for a 25-degree dive (the average glide slop is inclined to approximately three degrees) with an airspeed of 330 mph, with thrust at idle power and landing gear, flaps, and speed brakes all fully extended. The technique – designed to assist in the landing of a spacecraft from low Earth orbit – enabled the pilot to decrease speed rapidly before touching down.
Major Robert Lawrence
The Benrus GG-W-113
On that day in late 1967, Lawrence was at the peak of his profession. He was an exceptional fighter pilot who recently, in mid-1967, had been chosen as one of 17 USAF astronauts by a secretive USAF program, with every expectation of being one of the few humans to visit space. That chill day in late 1967, Lawrence was engaged in what he enjoyed most, mentoring another pilot and imparting hard-won flying knowledge. But one of the two F-104 pilots had only minutes to live…
Major Robert Lawrence’s Early Life
“He was scholarly and serious,” said Lawrence’s father, Robert Lawrence. Every year for Christmas, young Robert asked for a newer, more elaborate chemistry set. His passion for science began in early childhood would last his entire life, and he had the discipline to see his dreams through. Per his mother Gwendolyn Duncan, the family purchased a piano that came with eight lessons when Lawrence was a young child. Like most families, the piano was a not inconsiderable expense for the family, and his mother “emphasized the importance of his making all the lessons.” Crossing the street on his way to a lesson, Lawrence was hit by a truck; when the driver offered to take Lawrence to the hospital, he refused – after all, he had a piano lesson to get to.
In 1952, Lawrence graduated at 16 from South Side Chicago-based Englewood High School in the top ten percent of his class. During his time at Illinois-based Bradley University, he was an ROTC member and corps commander, and would graduate at the age of 20 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, with a USAF commission as a lieutenant.
United States Air Force
Major Lawrence would go on to undergo flight training at Missouri-based Malden Air Force Base, and subsequently spent several years posted at Munich-based Fürstenfeldbruck Air Force Base, instructing West German pilots. While stationed in Munich for his tour he married Barbara Cress, and they had one son, Tracey Lawrence.
The Lawrence family would return to the U.S. in 1961, with Lawrence’s career trajectory on track to continue his work as a USAF flight instructor. But as indicated, Lawrence sought challenges to overcome. He found it by obtaining his PhD from Ohio State University in physical chemistry in 1965 – by this time, his 2,500 flight hours provided the threshold experience to achieve what few did, to become an astronaut.
Yet his two applications to NASA were denied – but this wasn’t unusual, as many otherwise talented pilots experience the same in contemporary times. However, there was an alternative in 1967 – the USAF had a space program of its own, a vision of militarized space exploration at odds the ideal promoted by NASA, then and now.
Major Lawrence at the Press Conference Announcing the MOL Program
A Top-Secret USAF Program
When the 1960s began, it appeared armed conflict between the two superpowers would be fought on every front, from the seabed to low Earth orbit. The Cold War was raging in Africa and Asia, with most of the developing world divided between the two. By the time U.S. U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers would be traded for a Soviet spy in 1962, his Russian hosts were contemplating a 75-ton manned space platform to facilitate the launch of nuclear weapons from low Earth orbit.
To parry, in 1961 the USAF devised a 10-year plan to place a continuous USMIL force into space in the form of piloted craft, manned surveillance platforms, and space stations at the cost of tens of billions of dollars. Following the USAF’s X-15 rocket plane, which took pilots to the brink of space, the next evolution was a piloted delta-wing craft USAF pilots would take into orbit on a Titan booster rocket, maneuver and rendezvous in space, and glide back to Earth akin to the NASA Space Shuttle today.
The MOL platform consisted of a modified Gemini capsule attached to a cylindrical model 10 feet in diameter and 42 feet long. A Titan III rocket would launch the station into a 150-mile-high orbit. The station was not designed for permanence, as once abandoned it would burn up in atmosphere reentry, with a new one launched for the next mission.
The USAF envisioned the MOL as a small space station in polar orbit, crewed by two USAF astronauts who would remain on the MOL platform for approximately 30-day missions, equipped with the Dorian imagery system (a six-foot-diameter KH-10 spy camera, which could resolve features as small as a softball), with higher resolution than systems on unmanned satellites. Using the advanced imagery equipment, the MOL astronauts would photograph targets of military intelligence interest on Earth (usually behind the Iron Curtain).
Other proposed MOL duties were the operation of a radar system, testing signals intelligence (SIGINT)-gathering equipment, the assembly of separate orbital space stations, the inspection/disruption of enemy satellites, and to conduct post-strike target assessment. It might carry nuclear weapons for use against the ground or other spacecraft, and some speculated the MOL platform might be able to detect hostile nuclear submarines in the ocean. In essence, the MOL mission was outer space, well, espionage.
President Lyndon Johnson gave MOL an official go-ahead in August 1965, with the first unmanned shot scheduled for 1968 and the first crew to follow later that year. Within hours of the White House announcement the MOL would go ahead, a dusk of secrecy settled upon the project.
In mid-1967, following Major Lawrence’s acceptance into the MOL program, he successfully completed the USAF Test Pilot School (Class 66B) at Edwards AFB, California. The same month, the USAF selected him as an astronaut in MOL program (which drew talented pilots from the USAF, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps), becoming the country's first Black astronaut.
When Lawrence’s was accepted, the MOL program was in its infancy – his duties then were strictly ground-based, with travel to visit MOL program Department of Defense (DoD) contractors in a surreptitious manner utilizing tradecraft to maintain a low profile, such as wearing civilian clothing and the use of assumed names. This proved somewhat difficult for Lawrence, given his nascent fame as America’s “first Black astronaut,” even though MOL program was considered secret.
A Tragic Death
As Major Lawrence and Royer completed their pre-flight checks on their F-104 Starfighter at Edwards AFB in late 1967, they both had bright futures. Major Royer piloted the F-104 to 25,000 feet and made the first of several planned approaches to the airstrip, coming in far faster than usual to simulate the speed of an aerospace vehicle.
On one of these approaches, something went awry. It’s unknown what – the official USAF accident report states the F-104 hit the runway 2,200 feet from the approach end, with the F-104’s two main gears collapsing as the plane landed left of the runway centerline. The F-104’s canopy shattered, exposing Lawrence and Royer to smoke from the now flaming fuselage, which skidded over 200 feet and briefly became airborne again, then fell back to earth. As the F-104 broke apart and rolled over repeatedly, both officers ejected. Royer survived the ejection, terribly wounded. Lawrence’s ejection occurred after the F-104 had rolled, with the ejection launching him horizontally into the earth, almost certainly an instantaneous death.
Major Lawrence would be buried in his native Chicago with full military honors, with Mayor Richard Daley and eight fellow USAF MOL astronauts in attendance. In June 1969, a little over a year after Lawrence’s death, newly elected President Nixon cancelled MOL as too expensive, rendered obsolete by spy satellite technology advances and NASA’s Skylab Space Station plans.
The final biting irony? All USAF MOL pilots/astronauts selected as NASA astronauts following the shuttering of the MOL program would fly on the NASA Space Shuttle and return to Earth in that fast, steep dive the 17 MOL astronauts – to include Major Lawrence – helped pioneer. Had Lawrence survived, he would have become the first Black man in space.
Per NASA, because of Major Lawrence’s untimely death and the relative secrecy surrounding the MOL program, his name would remain largely unknown for many years. It wasn’t until three decades after Lawrence’s demise that he would be recognized, in 1997, by NASA as the first Black astronaut. Regardless of the delay, Lawrence’s name is now the 17th name on the Astronauts Memorial Foundation Space Mirror, erected at the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to honor all astronauts who perished during or while preparing for space missions.
In 2020, a Northrop Grumman Cygnus-class spacecraft was christened S.S. Robert H. Lawrence in his honor. KSC Director Bob Cabana said, “Major Lawrence truly was a hero. He took that first step setting the stage for what was to come.” His ground-breaking accomplishments more than 50 years ago continue to be an inspiration to NASA astronauts to this day.
Cygnus-Class Spacecraft S.S. Robert H. Lawrence
Major Robert Lawrence’s Watch
Since the beginning of modern warfare, the U.S. Government (USG) has utilized private manufacturing contractors for the production of its military vehicles, equipment, and weaponry – wristwatches were no exception to this rule – with the USG usually providing an exact specification document to DoD contractors.
The GG-W-113 was one of the USG’s longest running military wristwatch specifications – first issued in June 1967 (and until the late 1980’s), this specification highlighted the U.S. military’s need for a legible, accurate, and durable timepiece for use in active combat situations. The basic requirements for the GG-W-113 were:
Mechanical movement with an accuracy of +/- 30 seconds per day;
A hacking mechanism;
Shock resistance (must survive a fall from four feet onto a wooden block);
Luminous hands (using Tritium);
Minimum of 36-hour power reserve.
While – despite an extensive search – I was unable to find clear photographs of Major Lawrence wearing a watch, he undoubtedly wore one. Specialized USAF officers, to include Lawrence, were issued the newly approved DoD spec GG-W-113 mechanical watch beginning in early June 1967. The GG-W-113 was made by three watch manufacturers (Hamilton, Benrus, and Marathon) and at least at the time of Lawrence’s fatal crash, it was being issued to specialized ground units, helicopter pilots, and – important to our research here – USAF fighter pilots.
While it’s possible Lawrence wore a MIL-W-6433A Type A17A or the MIL-W-3818A (first issued in 1960 and 1962, respectively), I assess pilots/astronauts in this secretive and high-priority program would have been issued the best kit for the time, hence the more legible and accurate GG-W-113. Further, the GG-W-113 – nearly identical in appearance to the MIL-W-3818B – was issued to USMIL pilots, while the MIL-W-3818B was issued to ground forces, as it’s movement was considered lower quality and without a hacking movement standard.
The DoD goal was never a beautiful watch, but a durable one that did what it was designed for – a tool watch operating efficiently under extreme circumstances. The GG-W-113 featured three hands, 12-hour time in the outer circumference and an inner ring with 24-hour time to ensure easy reading of military and “normal” time.
The minute hand was the highly legible elongated “syringe” style hand for precise time reading and setting as it reached all the way out to the outer minute track. For pilots such as Major Lawrence, the elongated GG-W-113 hands would greatly assist in a rapid reading of time, with minutes of far greater importance than hours in flight. Further, the matte case finish didn’t allow glint from the sun – ever present when flying – and was more durable for military use.
As an aside, in the 1960s, Benrus – no doubt recognizing the quality of the simple military designs they were producing for the USG in the form of their DoD-issued GG-W-113 – debuted a version of the watch, the Ref. 3061, on the commercial market.
Now commonly referred to as the “Benrus Bullitt,” it famously adorned the wrist of Steve McQueen’s character, Frank Bullitt, in the 1968 movie of the same name as he raced around the streets fighting crime in his dark green Ford Mustang GT.
The GG-W-113, Other Military Watches, and My Own Family History
My grandfather retired from the USAF as a full bird Colonel in command of Rickenbacker Air Force Base outside of Columbus, OH. Throughout his career, he cut a dashing figure in all the family pictures I had seen of him. While a disciplinarian at times, he was also hilarious and loved to tell jokes that made family and friends alike crack up.
He chose to impart – like Major Lawrence – his pilot knowledge on new pilots and he served out WWII as a flight instructor. In 1945, as the war wound down, he was stationed at Douglas Army Airfield in Arizona, again as a flight instructor and was in command of the Officer’s Club (tough gig, I’m sure).
When the Korean War broke out several years later, he would fly fighter jet escort to USAF bombers, and go on to do a tour in the Pentagon in DC.
And the watches he wore?
Those will be the subject of another article, in due time…