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Downtown welcomes statue of astronaut

May 22, 2018
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Roger B. Chaffee statue downtown Grand Rapids
A statue of astronaut and U.S. Navy pilot Roger B. Chaffee stands in front of the Grand Rapids Children's Museum downtown. Photo by David Thompson Jr.

A Grand Rapids-born astronaut has been immortalized in seven feet of bronze downtown.

A statue honoring Roger B. Chaffee, a NASA Apollo 1 and U.S. Navy pilot, was unveiled Saturday in front of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

Navy veteran David Thompson chaired the effort to bring Chaffee’s likeness to his hometown. The project also received support from the Michigan Military Preservation Society and Lowell American Legion Post #152.

“Everybody was excited about having the statue, but the city has a lot of nooks and crannies to get caught in,” Thompson said. “We had planned to do it in October last fall, but we got stuck in all this red tape.”

The group chose Brett Grill, a Grand Rapids sculptor, to replicate Chaffee’s likeness.

Grill’s portfolio also includes sculptures of former President Gerald Ford, Jay Van Andel and Edward Frey throughout Grand Rapids and the U.S.

“It’s an incredible likeness,” Thompson said of the statue. “When I finally saw it, I thought I could have gone up and shaken hands and say, ‘Roger, how you doing?’”

The project also had a personal touch for Thompson, who attended Grand Rapids Central High School and ran track with Chaffee.

Chaffee joined the Apollo 1 mission in 1966, which would have been NASA’s first three-man flight, according to Thompson. A flash fire during a launch-pad testing claimed the lives of Chaffee and his crewmates, Ed White and Virgil Grissom.

The unveiling of the statue was held at Veterans Memorial Park across from the Children’s Museum. The ceremony featured music from the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters and Jack Lousma as the guest speaker.

Lousma, a retired astronaut and aeronaut, was born in Grand Rapids and served as a pilot on the Skylab space station in 1978 and as space commander on STS-3 in 1982.

At the ceremony, the City of Grand Rapids also proclaimed May 19 to be Roger B. Chaffee day.

“It was an incredible event,” Thompson said. “I’m just really proud of how everything came together.”

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