Lieutenant Roger Bruce Chaffee was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on February 15, 1935 to Mr. and Mrs. Donald L. Chaffee. Roger was a pilot in the Navy, and an astronaut. He is remembered, however, as one of the three astronauts that were chosen for the first manned Apollo space flight, which ended in tragedy on January 27, 1967.
Roger Chaffee was born in Grand Rapids; however he spent his pre-grade school years in Greenville, Michigan. His father was employed by Army Ordnance. In 1941, he was transferred to Grand Rapids as Chief Inspector of Army Ordnance at the Doehler – Jarvis plant. In May of 1942, the Chaffee’s moved to Grand Rapids.
Mr. Donald Chaffee was a barn-storm pilot, and this probably encouraged Roger’s interest in flying. At the age of seven or eight, he had his first flight in an open cockpit plane. Also at an early age, Roger knew the principles of aerodynamics.
Concerning education, Roger attended several schools in the city, namely Dickinson, Madison, South for half-a-semester, and Central High School. While at Central, Roger achieved and excellent scholastic record, as he did in grade school. His favorite subjects were math and science. He was also very active in sports, going out for football four years, as well as track. In addition, he was active in several school activities: C-Club, Concert and Dance Band, March of Dimes, Big Brother – Big Sister, and various committees. Furthermore, he was in the Boy Scouts, attaining the rank of Eagle and having served on the staff of the South organization’s Camp Shawondossee on Duck Lake north of Muskegon.
Following graduation from Central in 1953, Roger went to Illinois Institute of Technology for one year on a Naval Reserve Officers Training Scholarship but transferred a year later to Purdue University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1957. At Purdue he enrolled in the Naval ROTC and earned a commission. In addition, he joined the Phi Kap Sigma fraternity on campus and enjoyed it. He also met Martha L. Horn from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma whom he married. In 1956, Mrs. Chaffee was Purdue Homecoming Queen. Roger and Martha had two children Sheryle and Stephen.
After graduating from Purdue, Chaffee entered the navy’s flight training program and in 1959 his wife pinned his wings to his uniform jacket. Subsequently, he qualified as a career pilot flying operational jet aircraft. His primary assignment was a safety officer and quality control officer for Heavy Photographic Squadron Sixty-Two at the Jacksonville, Florida, Naval Air Station. When he was named one of the fourteen men chose in the third group of American astronauts in October, 1963, Chaffee was a student at the Air Force Instituted of Technology (AFIT) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio. At AFIT he was working toward a Master of Science degree in reliability engineering.
After being named to the space program, Chaffee had returned to Grand Rapids only occasionally, usually to visit his parents. On occasion he opened the 1964 Kent county Air Fair, addressed a Junior Achievement gathering, spoke before service clubs on the space program and was named chairman of the Boy Scouts’ Grand Valley Council annual membership drive.
On March 21, 1966, Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom and Edward H. White II were named by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the primary crew for the first manned Apollo space flight. Grissom and White were veteran space travelers, but this would be Chaffee’s first orbital voyage. Grissom, command pilot, made the nation’s second suborbital flight aboard Mercury 4 in 1961 and piloted the first two-man Gemini space flight in 1965. White II was the first American to “walk” in space during the flight of Gemini 4 in June of 1964. Chaffee’s primary responsibility with the Apollo team was in flight control communication and instrumentation systems. The mission of the 35,000 pound capsule was to circle the earth for up to 14 days, testing its rocket engine and other systems as part of the preparation for the flight to the moon, which occurred in 1969. On January 27, Roger Bruce Chaffee along with his fellow comrades was killed in a flash fire that swept through their space capsule during a ground test. Rogers dream was to set foot on the moon, but simply being named to the program he considered a great accomplishment. “I’ve made the goal I aimed for” he said in 1964. The space program, he added, “presents a tremendous scientific change “ (1).
(1) “Still Awful Shock”, Grand Rapids Press, January 28, 1967, page 3.
Sources: Grand Rapids Press, NASA Biography, LIFE Magazine and “..On Course to the Stars.”