A Biography of Roger B. Chaffee, NASA Astronaut

Roger Chaffee at the console.
Roger B. Chaffee acting as CAPCOM for the Gemini 3 mission.

NASA 

Roger Bruce Chaffee was born on February 15, 1935. His parents were Donald L. Chaffee and Blanche May Chaffee. He grew up with an older sister in Greenville, Michigan until the age of 7 when the family relocated to Grand Rapids for Donald Chaffee's job with the Army.

Fast Facts: Roger B. Chaffee

  • Name: Roger Bruce Chaffee
  • Born: February 15, 1935 in Grand Rapids, MI
  • Died: January 27, 1967, in the Apollo 1 fire at Kennedy Space Center
  • Parents: Donald Lynn Chaffee, Blanche May Chaffee
  • Spouse: Martha L. Horn
  • Children: Sheryl Lyn and Stephen.
  • Career: Served in the Navy until his selection as a NASA astronaut in 1963 
  • Education: Air Force Institute of Technology, Purdue University
  • Honors: Congressional Medal of Honor and Navy Air Medal (both posthumous)

Chaffee entered the Illinois Institute of Technology as a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) candidate and transferred to Purdue University in 1954, where he studied aeronautical engineering. While there, he entered flight training and qualified as an aviator. Upon graduation, Chaffee finished his Navy training and entered the service as an ensign. He married Martha Louise Horn in 1957 and they had two children. While in the Navy, Chaffee continued flight training in Florida, first at Pensacola and later at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville. Throughout his time there, he logged 2,300 hours of flight time, with much of that occurring in jet aircraft. He was awarded a Navy Air Medal for his work in photographic reconnaissance during his Navy career.

Chaffee's Career at NASA

Early in 1962, Roger Chaffee applied to the NASA astronaut program. Accepted initially, he worked on a master's degree at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson in Ohio while waiting for the final determination. Chaffee's area of study was in reliability engineering, and while there he also continued adding to his flight log. In 1963 he was selected as an astronaut and began training as part of the third group of astronauts ever chosen. 

Portrait of Astronaut Roger B. Chaffee
Portrait of Astronaut Roger B. Chaffee. NASA Johnson Space Center (NASA-JSC)

Chaffee was assigned to the Gemini program and worked as the capsule communications specialist (CAP com) for Gemini 4. He worked on deep space instrumentation equipment and its use. While he never flew a Gemini mission, he was an essential part of the team. Eventually, Chaffee was assigned to Apollo 1, which was then called AS-204 (for Apollo-Saturn). It was scheduled to fly early in 1967. 

crew of apollo 1
The crew of Apollo 1 at Launch Complex 34, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA

The Apollo 1 Mission

The Apollo program was the series of flights that would eventually lead to astronauts landing on the Moon. For the first mission, the astronauts would test all the spacecraft systems, along with ground-based facilities for tracking and communications. Chaffee, who was familiar with all the Gemini systems, began training with the Apollo engineers in order to understand the capsule's capabilities. This included a long series of simulations that led up to what the team called a "plugs-out" countdown demonstration. This simulation included the astronauts being fully suited up and in the capsule as if it were in flight configuration. This took place on January 27, 1967, and Chaffee's role on the mission would be as chief communications expert with the engineers and team members in the mission blockhouse. 

All went well until several hours into the mission, when a power surge created an electrical short inside the capsule. That ignited a fire in the capsule materials. The blaze was so intense and hot that it overcame the astronauts while they were trying to escape. Roger Bruce Chaffee and his teammates Gus Grissom and Edward White were all killed in the space of a minute. Later investigation showed that the bare wires and the oxygen-rich atmosphere inside the capsule contributed to the strength of the blaze. It was a huge loss for the space program and focused the nation's attention on astronauts and the dangers they face, leading to a major revamp of the capsule interior and hatch for future missions.

Apollo 1 Mission and Fire Pictures - Apollo 1 Fire
Apollo 1 and the aftermath of the fire. NASA Headquarters - GReatest Images of NASA (NASA-HQ-GRIN)

Honors for Roger Chaffee

Roger Chaffee was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, along with teammate Gus Grissom. Edward White was buried at West Point. Chaffee was honored with a second Air Medal by the Navy after his death, along with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is memorialized in the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, NM, as well as the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida. His name appears on a school, a planetarium, and other facilities, and there is a statue of him in Grand Rapids at the Children's Museum. 

Sources

  • NASA, NASA, www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/chaffee-rb.html.
  • NASA, NASA, history.nasa.gov/Apollo204/zorn/chaffee.htm.
  • Voskhod 2, www.astronautix.com/c/chaffee.html.