Pioneering astronaut to keynote annual Roger That! Conference

The Roger That! Conference returns in a hybrid format this year in an event that centers on women in space – including remarks from pioneering pilot and astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to both pilot a spacecraft and command a space shuttle mission.

The annual conference, held this year on February 18 and 19, celebrates space exploration and the life of Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee. Chaffee, along with Gus Grissom and Ed White, died in 1967 during an Apollo I pre-flight test when a fire broke out in the cockpit.

The joint venture between Grand Valley and the Grand Rapids Public Museum features STEM K-12 school programming from both partner organizations, an academic and public conference at GVSU and a public celebration at the GRPM. 

The two-part event will feature speeches on both days by Collins, who made history in 1995 as the first woman to pilot a U.S. spacecraft with the Discovery shuttle flight. In 1999, she was the commander for Columbia, making her the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. She ultimately logged 872 hours in space.

A portrait of Eileen Collins in her orange astronaut uniform
Eileen Collins will offer remarks on both days of the event.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

“I believe that space exploration is hugely inspirational to people of all ages, but in particular to young people," Collins said. "It is my hope that the excitement of space will inspire our youngsters to study math, science, engineering, and technology. The future of our country depends on the strong education of our diverse population.

"I wrote my book: 'Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars' to inform and inspire young people to consider careers in the military and in space. In addition, Roger Chaffee was one of my heroes and I believe it is important for people to understand his life and his motivation in the choices he made."

Deana Weibel, professor of anthropology and co-organizer of Roger That!, said when organizers decided on a theme of women and space, they knew Collins would be the perfect choice for a keynote speaker given her pioneering work and extensive achievements.

"These accomplishments required skill, intelligence, bravery and grit, illustrating beyond a doubt what women can achieve in space," Weibel said. "Roger That! has a growing audience, comprised of people around the world and of all ages. It’s important to us that folks who attend Roger That!, both in Grand Rapids and beyond, are able to see space explorers as they truly are, a reflection of the diverse population of our planet."

There will be two opportunities to hear Collins present her speech, titled “Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars,” which will chronicle her journey to becoming a NASA astronaut and earning her leadership positions. 

 She will speak at 6:30 p.m. February 18 at the Loosemore Auditorium on GVSU’s Pew Grand Rapids Campus. The lecture is free through registration at the Roger That! website. It will also be livestreamed.

 Collins will also speak at 11 a.m. February 19 at the GRPM. Tickets for this lecture are available for free at

Other highlights of the conference include:

  • The free GVSU Academic Conference on February 18 is open to educators and the general public. Speeches will be available in person and virtually, over Zoom. Guests must register. The speakers include experts in a wide range of fields, from space history to computational chemistry.
  • Roger That! STEM programming will be available for school groups and the general public on February 18 at the GRPM. 
  • The Design That! Challenge, which allows students to produce projects reflecting space-related topics, is open to students in grades 4-8, with separate award categories for grades 4-6 and 7-8. 

A black and white photo of Roger Chaffee in a white astronaut uniform
The event celebrates the life of Roger B. Chaffee.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo