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Remembering Grand Rapids’ astronaut Roger B. Chaffee 50 years later

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Portrait of Apollo 1 astronauts (L-R) Edward H White, Virgil I Grissom And Roger Chaffee, 1967. Printed following their death in a fire during training, January 27th 1967. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The life of a West Michigan astronaut is being remembered today, the 50th anniversary of his death on the launch pad.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Commander Roger B. Chaffee was killed on January 27, 1967, with two other astronauts, USAF Lt. Col. Gus Grissom and USAF Lt. Col. Edward Higgins White during a rehearsal launch of the Apollo 1 mission. The capsule that held the astronauts caught fire, believed to be from a spark in faulty electrical wiring. The hatch to the capsule would not open and the three were killed.  The accident caused a 20-month delay in the first manned Apollo flights, while NASA overhauled the spacecraft.

Chaffee was 31 at the time of his death.  He was the youngest of the team and had never flown to space.

In Cape Canaveral Friday, the scorched Apollo 1 hatch door will be on display at NASA for the first time. “I’m just so pleased that they finally decided to do something — visibly — to honor the three guys,” said Chaffee’s widow, Martha, in an interview with the Associated Press. “It’s time that they show the three who died in the fire appreciation for the work that they did.”

The planetarium at the Grand Rapids Public Museum is named in Chaffee’s honor, as is a boulevard in Grand Rapids between 32nd and 44th Street SE that used to be the previous site of the Kent County Airport.

Several events are happening in West Michigan Friday in Chaffee’s honor. The American Legion Post 154 at 2327 Byron Center Avenue is celebrating his life at 6:00pm. The GVSU Art Gallery is hosting a photo exhibit “The Life of Astronaut Roger B. Chaffee” on the West Wall Gallery in the Eberhard Center through March 31.

Grand Valley State University and the Grand Rapids Public Museum will hold a two-day symposium with Chaffee’s wife and daughter participating on February 10 and 11.  For more details visit the link for Roger That!

The Associated Press and CNN contributed to this report.

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