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Chaffee Planetarium keeps local astronaut’s memory alive

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- You can't visit the Grand Rapids Public Museum without exploring the planetarium. But even more fascinating is the man for which it's named -Roger B. Chaffee. The local and national hero died 50 years ago today.

"I remember it very well," David DeBruyn, planetarium curator said.

DeBruyn has been with the planetarium at the Grand Rapids Public Museum since 1964 and said he remembers picking up a copy of the Muskegon Chronicle on January 27, 1967. Chaffee, the West Michigan astronaut, had been killed.

"It was just devastating to read that headline and to realize that our local hero - the astronaut that we thought might be one of the first to set on the moon - would not be doing that," DeBruyn recalled.

It was then the planetarium changed it's name to honor Chaffee who grew up in Grand Rapids and attended Central High School. A few years before the tragedy, he'd been selected alongside Edward White II and Gus Grissom to go to the moon on Apollo 1. However, their capsule malfunctioned during a training session and an electrical fire killed the three astronauts almost instantly.

DeBruyn said Chaffee's family donated many of his career-related belongings to the museum.

The items make up a commemorative exhibit. The display includes Chaffee's flight jacket and even the condolences sent by then-Congressman Gerald and Betty Ford to his grieving family. Anyone who steps inside the planetarium not only learns about outer space but first watches a video on the local legend.

DeBruyn said, "It's an extremely well done piece that helps the public understand who Chaffee was because we have a generation of kids to whom that name is not familiar at all."

"We want them to understand that we have an astronaut from this area that could have gone to the moon, but he made the ultimate sacrifice," he added.

DeBruyn said out of the tragedy came an unintentional contribution as it's credited with causing NASA to develop safer methods and tighter standards. Two years later, the USA put a man on the moon.

"I could not think of a more appropriate name to memorialize a fallen hero than having the city's planetarium named after him," DeBruyn said.

There are a number of events and remembrances planned for Chaffee. The Grand Rapids Public Museum and Grand Valley State University will hold a symposium on February 10 and 11. Chaffee’s wife and daughter will give a presentation. Click here for more details on the event 'Roger That!'

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