Roger B. Chaffee was born February 15, 1935 in Greenville, Michigan. The Chaffee family moved to Grand Rapids in 1942 where Roger built model airplanes on a card table in the living room and commented that one day he would fly one. He learned his love of flying from his father, Donald, who was a barnstorming pilot in the 1930’s.
Roger’s ambitions and studies aimed beyond the sky. Taking the Boy Scout oath seriously, he excelled at everything he did, earning the rank of Eagle Scout. During the summers, he worked as a camp counselor at Camp Shawondosee, north of Muskegon. He was selected for membership in the Order of the Arrow.
Mathematics and science were his favorite subjects, although he played the trumpet well enough to play with an after games dance band. There were many hours of chemistry experiments in a “laboratory” that he built in a basement coal bin. Roger graduated from Central High School in 1953 maintaining grades that kept him in the top 20 percent of his class. After graduation, he entered the Navy Reserve Officer Training Program for aeronautical engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology.
After spending a year at Illinois Tech, he transferred to Purdue University where he graduated with distinction. Roger began his Navy training in 1957. Two days after being commissioned as an ensign, he married his college sweetheart, Martha Horn, who was Purdue’s Homecoming Queen. The day after his daughter Sheryl was born, Roger left for carrier flight training. He earned his aviator wings in 1959.
Navy assignments took him from an A7 carrier pilot to the stealthy world of high altitude photo reconnaissance. He flew dangerous and secret missions over Cuba providing crucial documentation of a Soviet missile buildup. Because of this bravery and outstanding service to our nation during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Lyndon Johnson later awarded Roger the Airman’s Medal.
In 1962, NASA requested applications to fill 14 available positions in their 3rd astronaut class. Roger applied and, after weeks of grueling physical and mental examinations by NASA, he made the first cut. The first pool was 1,800 top military and civilian pilots. Ten months later, NASA had cut the number to 271. Roger's name was working its way to the top. After more intense examinations, during which Roger told his wife, “They managed to thoroughly humiliate us at least three times a day!”, the tests were done. Agonizing weeks went by as he waited for NASA’s decision. On October 18, 1963, at a press conference in Houston, Texas, NASA introduced the second youngest astronaut in history, 28 year old Roger B. Chaffee. NASA’s third group of astronauts was considered the best of the best. It included four men who would eventually walk on the moon; Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan and David Scott.
Recognized as the brightest young engineer of the group, Chaffee was assigned to the coveted position of “prime crew" member for the first Apollo Mission. Apollo I was to be the nation’s first step towards the moon. The flight was to last two weeks to test NASA’s most advanced spacecraft, but tragedy struck instead.
On January 27, 1967, Lt. Comdr. Roger Chaffee, Mission Commander Lt. Col. “Gus” Grissom and Col. Edward White died when a flash fire swept through the command capsule during a simulated launch. Roger left a wife, Martha, daughter, Sheryl, son, Stephen, and a grieving nation.
In the Grand Rapids area, officials named a street on the site of the old Kent County Airport, Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Boulevard. Grand Rapids Public Museum Director W.D. Frankforter, ensured that the planetarium was renamed to honor our fallen astronaut. The Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium is now located within the Van Andel Museum Center of the Public Museum Grand Rapids.
Roger’s close friend and next door neighbor, Gene Cernan, who after three successful space flights, including two trips to the moon, became the last human being to walk on its surface. As Gene stood there, he looked back at the Earth and realized that he was there because of the sacrifice of his friend Roger.
As a bright and enduring legacy, The Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship Fund was established in 1967 by family, friends and Central High School students. This years recipient of the Annual Chaffee Scholarship joins a long list of Kent County area high school graduates who have carried the honor of commemorating the memory and aspirations of Roger B. Chaffee.