By Joanne N. Bailey-Borosma
Whether you have traveled the road, visited the planetarium, or seen the American legion post in your travels through Wyoming, there is a good chance you have seen or heard the name Roger B. Chaffee.
And for some the question during those travels may have been who was Roger B. Chaffee?
Chaffee was one of the first NASA astronauts, who tragically never made it to the stars. On Jan. 27, 1967, there was a fire in the Apollo 1 capsule during a training exercise killing Chaffee and his two crew mates, Virgil “Gus” Grisson and Edward H. White II, who was the first person to perform a space walk.
This Friday, fifty years to the date of the accident, the Wyoming Roger B. Chaffee American Legion Post 154 will host a dinner and memorial ceremony at the post, 2327 Byron Center Ave. SW. The dinner is at 6 p.m. and the ceremony is at 7 pm.
“From what I know, his father was a member of the post and they asked if they would name it after him,” said Jerry Smith, an adjunct with the post. American Legion posts have a tradition of bringing named after a local veteran.
Chaffee was a Navy officer before being accepted to the NASA program, said Glen Swanson, a Grand Valley State University physics professor who worked for NASA in Houston as the Johnson Space Center’s chief historian. Swanson credits some of his love for space from Chaffee’s parents, Donald and Blanche Chaffee. In their later years, the couple had moved to the city of Wyoming and Swanson would bike over to visit them and talk about NASA and the space program.
“Don and Blanche were huge supporters of the space program even after their son’s death,” Swanson said, adding the couple would visit area schools to talk about NASA and space and Don Chaffee even wrote a book.
The Chaffee family was from Greenville. Due to Don Chaffee having scarlet fever, Blanche Chaffee was forced to stay with relatives in Grand Rapids until Roger was born. The family later moved to Grand Rapids and Roger attended Central High School.
After graduation, Chaffee would attend Purdue to pursue his passion of flying and earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering. He joined the Navy and in 1962 applied for the astronaut training program. He wold be one of 14 out of a pool of more than 1,800 to be chosen for the Astronaut Group 3, all of who would be part of the Apollo program.
In January 1966, Chaffee was selected for the first Apollo mission, which was a surprise, Swanson said, adding that Chaffee had no previous flight experience unlike his crew mates Grissom and White. None would make it into space as the following year, the fire happened.
The accident also happened shortly after the move of the then Kent County Airport, which was located in Wyoming, formerly Paris Township. The landing strip was being paved and it was decided to name the road Roger B. Chaffee Boulevard.
“There was the local connection and since it was the former runway, it probably made sense,” Swanson said, adding that there was some debate on naming the airport after Chaffee but eventually it would be named after the former president and is now called the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
Wanting to remember Chaffee’s contributions to the space program, Swanson help put together a photo exhibit, “Roger That!,” on the West Wall Gallery at the GVSU Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids.
“We didn’t want to focus just on the tragedy of what happened, but rather on his life and accomplishments,” Swanson said. The exhibit will be up through Mar. 31.
There was plans to host an event on the actual anniversary, but since family members were booked for the NASA event this week in Florida, GVSU officials instead worked with the Grand Rapids Public Museum to plan a two-day conference and celebration in February, which was Chaffee’s birth month. On Feb. 10, there will be a conference featuring discussions on a variety of space-related topics including science, society, and the arts. The event concludes with a ticketed dinner with Chaffee’s wife and daughter, Martha and Sheryl Chaffee, and the planetarium show “Dark Side: The Light Show.”
On Feb. 11, Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory and winner of the Carl Sagan Medal for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences will present at 11 a.m. at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, 272 Pearl St. NW. This is a ticketed event. For more on the Roger That! activities, visit www.gvsu.edu/rogerthat.
Swanson said he hopes the activities will not only remind people of who Chaffee was, but encourage others to follow in his footsteps by pursuing their passion whether it be space or something else in the great beyond.