“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.”
These were words spoken by Roger Chaffee, who was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan on this day in 1935. Chaffee inherited a love of flying from his father Don and with an interest in electronics and engineering, a strong flair for mathematics and science and after a brief spell at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (on a Naval scholarship); he began a course in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.
Both his degree course and naval training were completed during 1957 – the same year in which Chaffee married Martha Horn – and his flight experience was broadened with work on an aircraft carrier and as pilot of the A3D photo reconnaissance plane. He trained civilian pilots in his spare time and undertook graduate level engineering courses in order to fulfil his childhood ambition of becoming an astronaut.
In 1962, Chaffee was one of nearly two thousand applicants for NASA’s third intake of astronauts. By the following year, less than three hundred were still in the running... he was subjected to an array of intense physical and psychological tests (“They managed to thoroughly humiliate us at least three times a day”, he was quoted as saying), but in October 1963, Roger Chaffee was named as one of fourteen new recruits to the astronaut corps...
Training began in 1964... classroom work was followed by field trips and demanding survival exercises in extreme conditions; spacecraft simulations, water egress practice, communications... every member of the group was tested to their limit, but after nearly two and a half years, Chaffee was named as the pilot for the first flight of the new Apollo-Saturn craft. His fellow crew members would be Gus Grissom (commander) and Ed White (senior pilot), both of whom had previous experience of spaceflight.
Grissom was particularly impressed with Chaffee’s knowledge and work ethic and in turn, the “rookie” astronaut admired the abilities and accomplishments of both his crew mates. Pre-flight testing intensified in early 1967 and on 27th January, Grissom, White and Chaffee entered the capsule for a routing launchpad test...
Hours later and all three men were dead... a fire (fuelled by pure oxygen) had raged, albeit relatively briefly, through the command module and unable to escape from the capsule, the astronauts perished from asphyxiation...
I have written about the life of Gus Grissom and looked into the Apollo I fire in quite some detail... but now is not the time to dwell on the should haves or would haves, but simply on what would have been his 77th birthday, to pay an all-too-brief tribute to a very gifted young man who died in pursuit of his dream...
Roger Bruce Chaffee 1935-1967
All my own work... almost.