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Profiles in Badassery: Roger Chaffee

Today, as we do every Friday here at H&R, we honor a badass who shares our gold and black heritage. This week, I’m pleased to offer a profile on Roger Chaffee, Boilermaker and American hero.

Roger Bruce Chaffee was born on February 15, 1935 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, under somewhat odd circumstances. In January of that year, Roger’s father, Don, was stricken with scarlet fever and quickly placed under quarantine. The disease was considered to be extremely dangerous and contagious, prompting doctors to force Roger’s mother, Blanche, out of delivering Roger at the local hospital. Furthermore, doctors prohibited Blanche from delivering at home, due to the risk of infection to both mother and child. As a result, Blanche spent the next two weeks at her parents’ home, delivering Roger there.

Roger Chaffee had aviation in his blood. Don worked as a barnstorming pilot, performing at fairgrounds, dropping parachuters, and taking on the occasional fare-paying passenger. Don shared his love of flying with his son Roger, taking him on his first plane ride at age 7. A brief jaunt with the family over Lake Michigan was enough to inspire Roger to make a life out of flying, even at a young age.

As a youth, Chaffee was a model young man. He occupied his time with building model airplanes (of course), target shooting, and even taking on the French horn and trumpet. In high school, he turned his interest in playing horns into a side gig, forming a band to play at post-game school dances. He was active in the Boy Scouts, reaching the rank of Eagle Scout. His school work reflected strengths in science and mechanics, and established a goal for himself of having his name written in history books one day. Amongst his friends, before the space race even heard it’s starting gun, he disclosed his dream of being the first man on the moon. He graduated towards the top of his class and made his way to college.

He began his collegiate career having turned down a scholarship from the Naval Academy, not ready to make the permanent commitment to serve. He instead attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1953 on a ROTC scholarship. After his first year at IIT, he made the decision to marry his love of flying to his skills in science and math by pursuing an aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue. He was accepted and began his studies in 1954. During his studies, he served intermittently on the battleship Wisconsin as a part of his ROTC commitment.

While at Purdue, Chaffee was Phi Kappa Sigma, living in house for the duration of his years in West Lafayette. He met his to-be wife on a blind date during his junior year, initially perceiving her as a "naïve Southern girl." Martha, a freshman remarked that Roger was a "handsome, but smart-alec upperclassmen." Despite their initial impressions, they continued dating and Roger proposed a little over a year after meeting Martha. Chaffee excelled as a pilot and was recommended for further military flight training upon graduation.

Roger completed his military training, married Martha and reported for duty in Virginia, soon moving to Pensacola, Florida for flight training. One day before leaving carrier training, he became the father of a baby girl, Sheryl Lyn. During his carrier training, Chaffee remarked that "setting that big bird down on the flight deck was like landing on a postage stamp."

While in the Navy, Chaffee served as a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and one of his early duties was, interestingly, photographing the launch pad construction at Cape Canaveral. He is purported to have flown spy planes over Cuba during the missile crisis, but that information is, understandably, murky due to intelligence sensitivity. He applied to and joined NASA in 1963, being one of 14 chosen to join the growing astronaut corps. Chaffee, dealing with extreme competition, was named as one of the three men to fly in the first Apollo Earth-orbit mission, the fateful Apollo I.

This mission was supposed to be open-ended, lasting up to two weeks, in order to test and evaluate major spacecraft systems while in orbit. During training for the mission, Chaffee established himself as a tireless, meticulous workhorse: much like a Boilermaker ought to be. The crew entered the spacecraft on the morning of January 27, 1967 for a live test on the launch pad. Chaffee took his place in the pilot’s couch and the testing began.

Chaffee was doing his job monitoring the spacecraft and maintaining communication. He had no warning of the impending disaster. When the fire broke out, Chaffee did not attempt to escape from the spacecraft, but instead remained strapped to his couch, attempting to convey emergency messages while the fire gutted the Apollo I capsule. The fire burned for 17 seconds in an atmosphere of pure, pressurized oxygen. The pressure eventually burst the wall of the capsule, allowing air from the outside into the craft. Fed by the outside air, the fire decreased in intensity and put itself out, but not before taking the lives of three brave Americans. Chaffee lost his life that morning, along with other astronauts Gus Grissom and Ed White.

Chaffee was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart, and the United States Navy Air Medal. He is buried in Arlington national cemetery in Washington, D.C.

I’d like to leave you with a few quotes from Roger that illustrate his zeal for his life’s passion of flight, as well as his undying commitment to his duties.

"You'll be flying along some nights with a full moon. You're up at 45,000 feet. Up there you can see it like you can't see it down here. It's just the big, bright, clear moon. You look up there and just say to yourself: I've got to get up there. I've just got to get one of those flights."

"Probably the greatest thing a man can say to himself, or have as his philosophy when he has to tackle a tough job, or make a big decision, is the first eight words of the Scout Oath: On my honor, I will do my best..."

Thank you, Roger. We all are proud to call you a Boilermaker. Hail Purdue.