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Fifty years ago, a Grand Rapids astronaut died in Apollo 1 disaster that changed NASA forever

Jan 27, 2017

Today marks 50 years since NASA faced one of the organization's biggest setbacks. On Jan. 27, 1967, a fire during a preflight test for Apollo 1 killed the three astronauts on board.

One of the crew members was Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee.

Glen Swanson, a former NASA historian and current visiting instructor in the Department of Physics at Grand Valley State University, joined Stateside to look back at Chaffee's life and death, and how the Apollo 1 disaster changed NASA.

"It has been said that because of the failure of Apollo 1, it allowed for the subsequent success of the Apollo missions, which basically culminated in the successful lunar landing of Apollo 11," said Swanson.

Since that first successful mission to the moon, we have returned six other times.

Chaffee was the son of a barnstormer pilot and learned to fly at a young age. He attended Grand Rapids Central High and later became a naval reserve officer. Then, in 1963, at the age of 28, Chaffee became the youngest person to ever be selected to be an astronaut.

Listen to the full interview above to learn what caused the Apollo 1 fire, and about Chaffee's critical role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For more about Roger B. Chaffee, check out "Roger That! A Celebration of Space Exploration in Honor of Roger B. Chaffee." It's a conference on Feb. 10 and 11 at the Eberhard Center in Grand Rapids, organized in part by Glen Swanson. 

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"Three Astronauts Killed by Fire", Jules Bergman, ABC News, Jan. 27,1967