50th Chaffee Scholar Aims to Contribute ‘Something That Matters’
Grand Rapids Astronaut’s Legacy Lives Onby Charles Honey
David Pequet vividly remembers that Friday evening of 50 years ago, Jan. 27, 1967. In the midst of a huge snowstorm that had kept him home from school, he picked up the phone at his Jenison home. It was an official from NASA, who asked to speak with his mother, Donna. Right away David, then 15, knew something was wrong.
Indeed. The man from NASA informed Donna that her brother, 31-year-old Roger B. Chaffee, had died. The Grand Rapids native and two fellow astronauts, Edward White II and Virgil “Gus” Grissom, perished from a fire in the command module of Apollo 1, during a preflight test at Cape Kennedy, Fla. What was intended to be the first manned mission of the Apollo lunar landing program brought tragedy to the nation and Chaffee’s family back home, including his wife and two children.
But it also brought needed safety upgrades to the Apollo program, ultimately leading to the moon landing of Apollo 11 in 1969 and deeper space missions thereafter.
“Roger touched a lot of lives, as did Gus and Ed,” Pequet says of his uncle and fellow pioneers. “Even though it was a tragedy, out of that came a much better program that propelled us to the moon.”
Chaffee’s sacrifice also has touched the lives of aspiring scholars from Kent County, through the Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship Fund for students in engineering or science. If Chaffee knew of the annual award, says Pequet, treasurer of the scholarship board, “He’d be very proud, proud that his legacy has lived on.”
Now Northview High senior Eric Pearson has been named the scholarship’s 50th recipient, awarding him $3,000 toward his studies at the University of Michigan. He will be formally recognized in a banquet May 4 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
“It’s really an honor to get anything where someone says, ‘I’m willing to give you $3,000 to see what you can do with it,’” Eric says. “All the more when it’s in the name of someone who did something so great.”
Pursuing Powerful Possibilities
Eric plans to use his scholarship to study nuclear engineering, with the aim of researching nuclear fusion as a means of producing powerful, green energy. Along with other sources such as wind and solar, he believes fusion can help reverse worrisome environmental trends, including a threatened U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m just worried the tides are changing in an irreversible way,” Eric says. “If there ever would be a magic bullet to help global warming and fix the environment, I think it’s nuclear fusion.”
The son of Mark and Tamara Pearson, Eric’s magic bullet would seem to be hard work. He’s class salutatorian with a GPA of 4.286, president of the National Honor Society, and was first-team academic all-state as a center for the Wildcats football team. He’s taken three Advanced Placement tests and isn’t daunted by the prospect of five more.
“I enjoy a challenge,” says Eric, who sees similarities between academic rigors and the physical punishment of football. “You just kind of take the hits and keep going.”
Teachers noted his dedication and efficiency in recommending him for the scholarship. AP physics teacher Erin Berryhill called him a “brilliantly gifted, dedicated young man.” AP calculus teacher Tina Ely wrote he has “exceptional leadership qualities and excels in all he does.”
Eric’s served as senior class secretary and on the leadership council for football, has mentored younger students and tutored high schoolers. He’s volunteered for Special Olympics, walked dogs for the Humane Society and writes for the school online newspaper.
Impressive List of Scholars
But his passion is for engineering, whether it’s contemplating the potential of nuclear fusion to fuel a plane that never needs to land, or creating a phone case with a CAD program and 3-D printer. “I like making stuff,” he says in his friendly, easygoing way.
He has greater ambitions, however, for making a mark on the world.
“I’d really like to contribute to something that matters,” Eric says. “I think engineering’s the best outlet for that. Make something that wasn’t real, real.”
Eric’s well-rounded achievements in the classroom and beyond, his “phenomenal” test scores and “willingness and compassion to work with his fellow students” made him the winning scholar among 59 applicants, Pequet says.
He joins an impressive list of scholars that began in 1968 with Bernie Siebers, who like Chaffee, graduated from Grand Rapids Central High School. He went to U-M, then to Princeton for a master’s in physics. Others include Jacob Lewis Bourjaily, a 2002 Forest Hills Central graduate, now a theoretical physicist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and a prominent researcher of quantum field theory. He proudly displays his scholarship plaque wherever he lives, Pequet notes.
“Dozens of scholars have written us and said ‘I received a lot of awards, but the Chaffee Scholarship was the most meaningful,'” Pequet says.
‘My Hero, My Mentor’
Chaffee earned an aeronautical engineering degree from Purdue University and was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. Pequet saw him frequently growing up, as he and his mother lived for a time with Chaffee’s parents, Don and Blanche. Chaffee always took an interest in him, encouraging him in Boy Scouts, school and sports, Pequet says.
“Roger was more like a big brother than an uncle,” Pequet recalls fondly. “He was always my hero, my mentor.”
After Chaffee entered the NASA space program, Pequet visited him in Houston and got to meet John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Such experiences helped motivate Pequet to join the Navy in the Aviation Officer Flight Program. He went on to found the MPI Investment Management firm outside of Chicago.
For the 50th anniversary of his uncle’s death, Pequet sponsored a U.S. Postal Service memorial cancellation stamp honoring the Apollo 1 crew. He also attended a January memorial event at Kennedy Space Center with members of all three astronauts’ families, where he read a poem Chaffee’s late father wrote for Roger.
Pequet is proud not only of his uncle but of all the young scholars like Eric Pearson who carry on his legacy. Asked what advice Roger Chaffee would give to them, Pequet kept it simple: “Study hard, stay focused, do the right thing. Don’t lose sight of your humble beginnings in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”
CONNECTApril 14th 2017