Air Force & Civil Test Pilot; Astronaut Selectee
Richard E. Lawyer, 73,
passed away on November 12, 2005, the day after Veteran's Day. The
apparent cause of his death was a deep vein blood clot. His death
was peaceful but completely unexpected; he was sitting at his desk
at home. Dick Lawyer was born November 8, 1932 in Los Angeles and
served his country as a test pilot, as a designated astronaut who
never flew in space due to circumstances beyond his control, and as
a senior officer in the Air Force.
The retired Air Force colonel still taught at the National Test
Pilot School at the Civilian Flight Test Center in Mojave,
California, still conducted flight tests, and was scheduled to fly
this week, according to the Society of Experimental Test
Lawyer remained healthy and active, holding a Class 1 medical
certificate till the day he died. Indeed, the F-100F pictures,
taken earlier in 2005, show Col. Lawyer (below, front seat, blue
helmet) and a flight test engineer conducting calibration test
flights at Mojave earlier this year. The purpose was to get valid
data up to Mach 0.90 in support of a Boeing 737 flight test
program, so the intrepid duo passed by the Mojave tower at 70 feet
AGL at speeds up to M0.90 which is 560 kts. Not many
septuagenarians are doing that, but then, there was only one Dick
As well as the F-100, Dick Lawyer was actively flying T-33s,
F-86s, and QF-4s for a variety of contractors at Mojave Airport.
During his Air Force career he'd flown F-80, -86, -100, -101,
-102, -104, 105, and -106 fighters, T-6, T-33 and T-39 (Sabreliner)
trainers, and U-2 and B-57 reconnaissance aircraft.
Col. Lawyer first came to the attention of Aero-News in June,
when we ran an article on the discovery of a spacesuit with his
name on it at Cape Canaveral. His relatives sent him that article,
which upset him, because it mentioned that we tracked him down to
the NTPS and they didn't respond to our email (it turns out we used
an old address that isn't monitored). That article is here. ("NASA Finds 1960s
Spacesuits," 17 June 05). He was upset at the
idea that people would think him unresponsive, which illustrates a
little something of his character -- the humble, friendly test
pilot -- not exactly a stereotype.
When he did get in touch with us, he was very complimentary
about the article, and a little bit bemused that anyone even cared
about the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, forty years later. "While it
contains a few minor errors, is the most accurate and detailed
article of all those that have appeared," he said. To us, that
comment was worth more than a Pulitzer Prize.
The Manned Orbiting Laboratory, announced in 1963, had some of
the features of a space station. A crew of two would launch in a
modified Gemini capsule, the Gemini-B, and on reaching the desired
orbit, would be able to go through a hatch in the back of the
Gemini into the MOL's work and accommodation spaces.
After spending thirty days in space, the crew would climb back
into the Gemini-B capsule and deorbit. At a relatively low
altitude, under 100 miles, the orbit of the MOL would decay and it
would soon be destroyed by re-entry.
Then-Captain Richard E. Lawyer was selected for the MOL in its
first group of pilots -- they avoided the word, "Astronaut" --
selected. That group was announced on November 12, 1965 -- forty
years to the day before Lawyer would pass away. The original MOL
pilots were all USAF Test Pilot School or Naval Test Pilot School
graduates. Lawyer mentioned to us with some pride that he graduated
the USAF TPS, but he -- characteristically -- never got around to
mentioning that he was distinguished graduate of his class, we had
to learn that elsewhere. It probably helped him that he started his
Air Force career with an Aero Engineering degree from USC -- but he
never mentioned that to us, either.
When the program was cancelled, officers under 35 years old were
permitted to sign on as NASA astronauts. All did, and all went on
to fly in the Shuttle program -- one went on to be NASA
Administrator. But then-Major Dick Lawyer was a few months too old.
He, like the other "overage" pilots (except for one who took a
non-astronaut position with NASA), returned to the USAF where he
served in numerous assignments with distinction before retiring in
the early 1980s as a Colonel. His last assignment was deputy
commander of Eglin Air Force Base, at the time a significant test
Characteristically, Col. Lawyer expressed no bitterness at the
cancellation of the MOL, or the bureaucratic rule that would have
let him go into NASA had he only been born in 1933, not '32. When
we pressed him, he admitted being "disappointed." And after that
disappointment he, again characteristically, bounced back.
(Seen here, from left to right around an MOL model: Michael J.
Adams, USAF; Albert H. Crews, USAF; John L. Finley, USN;
Richard E. Lawyer, USAF; Lachlan Macleay, USAF; Francis
G. Neubeck, USAF; James M. Taylor, USAF; and Richard
H. Truly, USN).
We maintained an interesting correspondence with Col. Lawyer for
a while as a result of his long-lost space suit resurfacing. It
turns out not to have been at all unusual for his name to be on a
space suit -- he was the MOL astronaut charged with pressure suit
development. "I was the main suit subject (or should I say Guinea
Pig?). When we needed 2 subjects, I enlisted the aid of another MOL
Pilot. At various times Mac Macleay, Jack Finley, or Bob Overmyer
would join me."
The MOL program indeed pushed pressure suit design farther
forward than contemporary NASA or USAF programs. We have provided
Col. Lawyer's comments on pressure suits (edited from several email
messages), and his corrections to our MOL article, as separate
sidebars to this article.
Lawyer believed he knew why there has been no book about the MOL
program -- and it isn't just the classified nature of the mission.
"MOL did not seek publicity, in fact we all tried to avoid
it. Our General told us that in his career, he had dealt with
the media on a number of occasions, and came off second best on
every one of those occasions.
So, I doubt that a comprehensive book about MOL will ever be
To the very end, Col.
Lawyer kept his vow to keep his country's secrets. While very
forthcoming about other aspects of the MOL program, he would not
say a word about its mission. We at Aero-News reported it as a
surveillance platform, a forerunner of spy satellites, and we stand
by that report; but when he contacted us, Col. Lawyer said at the
very beginning, "I am not at liberty to deny or confirm the
reported mission for MOL." So we steered away from that subject
with him. Only later did we learn that he used the exact same words
with his numberless civil aviation friends, and even his
While Dick Lawyer loved to fly, he also loved the outdoors. We
found the picture of DIck with a Halibut he caught in 2003 on the
charter operator's website. Characteristically -- that word again
-- he had finished planning next year's fishing trip just before he
passed away, according to Cathy Hansen in the Mojave Desert
Dick Lawyer is survived by his wife Gayle and a constellation of
kids and grandkids, and an orbit of friends that seems to encompass
all Mojave Airport, and others far beyond. He was irrepressible and
The nation will express its gratitude and respect for Col.
Lawyer's service on January 5, 2006, when he will be interred with
full military honors -- taking his secrets honorably with him -- at
Arlington National Cemetery, just across the river from the
Pentagon, on the former grounds of Robert E. Lee's country
The National Test Pilots School will honor Lawyer with a
memorial service on -- appropriately enough -- December 17th, the
anniversary of powered flight. You can bet there'll be a jet in the
Note: ANN extends our prayers and
sentiments to Col. Lawyers family and friends... we see too few of
his ilk... and we are all the poorer for his passing. Fair winds,
Colonel...--Jim Campbell, Aero-News Network, E-I-C