The epic launch of 64 SpaceX satellites will honor the first black astronaut with a Canopic pot sculpture


The first African-American astronaut will soon have a homage to spaceflight, if all goes as planned.

One of the 64 small satellites flying over a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during the upcoming SSO-A SmallSat Express mission carries a 24-carat gold jar that contains a bust of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., reported IEEE Spectrum earlier this month.

In June 1967, the US Air Force chose Lawrence – who had already reached the rank of commander in this military branch – for the Manned Surveillance Laboratory (MOL) program. A joint effort by the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office aimed to establish small space stations with crew in Earth orbit that would help the United States to spy on the Soviet Union and its rivals. [Manned Orbiting Laboratory Declassified: Inside a US Military Space Station]

But Lawrence died less than six months later, when his F-104 Starfighter supersonic plane crashed during an exercise at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Lawrence was participating in the training of another MOL astronaut at landing techniques, according to a biography written by NASA officials.

The US Air Force commander, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., next to an F-104 Starfighter.

The US Air Force commander, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., next to an F-104 Starfighter.

Credit: US Air Force

Although the administration of President Richard Nixon canceled MOL in 1969, Lawrence would probably have been able to go into orbit if he had survived the accident. He was only 32 years old at the time of his death and seven other MOL astronauts – Karol Bobko, Robert Crippen, Gordon Fullerton, Henry Hartsfield Jr., Robert Overmyer, Don Peterson and Richard Truly – were transferred to the ranks NASA after MOL was eliminated.

It is "virtually certain" that Lawrence would also have been transferred, NASA officials wrote in his biography. "All members of this group flew in the space shuttle in the 1980s, it is easy to imagine that Lawrence would have flown one of the first missions of the space shuttle," they added.

(Guion Bluford Jr., of NASA, became the first African-American astronaut to reach space when he was mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983.)

The tiny satellite honoring Lawrence calls Enoch and belongs to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, reported IEEE Spectrum. The artist behind the project is Tavares Strachan, who wanted to give the pioneer his due.

"[Lawrence is] Someone who has an almost unknown story, whom I consider a hero but who was not necessarily considered so when I was a child in school, said Strachan at IEEE Spectrum. " A black guy who was exploring the space with the US government was not "… t a normal situation in the 1960s in America. He was going through a very difficult time. "

Enoch is not the only unconventional payload to fly on SSO-A, to be launched Sunday (Dec. 2) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (The takeoff was initially scheduled for Wednesday, November 28, but was delayed due to high winds.)

For example, another artistic project, Orbital Reflector, is designed to draw the eyes of millions of people to the sky (temporarily – the shiny mini-satellite will desorb and burn in the Earth's atmosphere a few weeks after its launch, project team MPs said). And the Elysium Star 2 cubesat will transport to orbit the cremated remains of customers.

SSO-A, hosted by Spaceflight, based in Seattle, stands out not only for the number, diversity, and offbeat nature of its satellites. The mission also involves a Falcon 9 with a first stage with two flights. SpaceX has several times completed the first steps of the Falcon 9 in two stages as part of the company's efforts for rapid and extensive reuse, but no core has yet been launched for three separate orbital missions. .

The 64 payloads aboard SSO-A do not represent a record, by the way. An Indian rocket PSLV launched 104 satellites at a launch in February 2017.

Mike Wall's book on extraterrestrial life research, "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018, illustrated by Karl Tate) has just been published. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. follow us @Spacedotcom or Facebook. Originally posted on

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