GR honors local astronaut killed in first NASA disaster

Roger Chaffee, Edward White II and Virgil Grissom
The crew of Apollo I, from left to right, Roger Chaffee, Edward White II, and Virgil Grissom, were killed Jan. 27, 1967, when a flash fire swept their space capsule cabin during a simulated launch test at Cape Kennedy, Fla. The crew is seen inside the capsule in which they were killed. (AP Photo)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s been 50 years since Grand Rapids’ own Roger B. Chaffee died aboard the ill-fated Apollo 1 space capsule, but his name still graces the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s planetarium.

Dave DeBruyn, curator emeritus of the Chaffee Planetarium, was there from the start.

“We looked upon this as something where a legacy was necessary of some kind, because of the ultimate sacrifice he made,” he said.

In Jan. 27, 1967, the Cold War was underway. The Russians were beating the U.S. in the space race, but not for long. We were going to the moon.

Chaffee, the daring naval pilot who previously flew surveillance over Cuba during the Missile Crisis, climbed in to the tiny Apollo capsule with Ed White and Gus Grissom for a test.

What’s believed to be an electrical spark ignited the pure oxygen inside the capsule and there was no escape.

The space program had its first casualties. But there were also lessons learned.

“The fact that these three astronauts made the ultimate sacrifice probably meant that others that followed them went into space and came back to the earth more safely,” explained DeBruyn.

Just over two years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The U.S. hasn’t been back since Apollo 17.

In that time, generations missed out on the sense of adventure and accomplishment men like Roger Chaffee pioneered.

“When I would remember people walking throughout exhibits, particularly one that had to do with space travel, there were always a lot of comments about this is so cool. I don’t hear those anymore,” said DeBruyn, who hopes the U.S. will return to the moon.

“Something that kind of regains the public excitement… that we’ve gone where no man has gone before. That, I think, could pay some positive dividends,” he added.

The lessons continue. “Roger That,” a two-day conference highlighting the contributions made by Roger B. Chaffee and the benefits of space exploration, is scheduled for Feb. 10 and 11 in Grand Rapids.