Space shuttle voyage was co-pilot's lifelong dream

Friends in Lubbock, Texas, and Annapolis remember `all-American guy' McCool

The Loss Of Columbia

February 03, 2003|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LUBBOCK, Texas - It was pilot William C. McCool's first trip into space, and he wanted everyone to be there. So they were: the guys from Coronado High School, his mentors from the Naval Academy, his nervous mother and proud father.

When the space shuttle Columbia lifted off 18 days ago from its Cape Canaveral launch pad, Dale Somers stood in the Florida sun so far from home, overwhelmed by the power of that flying machine - and by the realization that his high school pal McCool sat behind the controls as co-pilot.

"I must have said 20 times, `Man, that's Willie up there,'" said Somers, who returned to his Lubbock home while McCool orbited above.

McCool was supposed to come home Saturday, and Somers would soon get to hear all about what he saw so many miles above the Earth. There would be no more thirdhand e-mails. There would just be Willie and his easy laugh.

Only McCool and the rest of Columbia's crew didn't make it back. The shuttle broke up over the state the co-pilot had called home, if only for a short while.

"Nobody was ever going to talk about Willie McCool and say, `If only he had applied himself,'" said Somers, who runs a family envelope business in this dusty town in the Texas panhandle. "If you were crafting the all-American guy, what you would get was Willie."

They met when they were 16 - McCool was the new kid in town, and they bumped into each other at the public library researching a paper for a class they had together. Somers asked McCool how he planned to get home that afternoon. McCool said he thought he would run. "It had to be five miles," Somers said.

Lubbock has ties to two of the seven astronauts who perished Saturday. While McCool was in high school, Commander Rick Douglas Husband graduated in 1980 from Texas Tech University here. Husband was awarded the school's Distinguished Engineer Award two years ago, said Duane P. Jordan, who was one of his Texas Tech professors.

McCool was born in San Diego in 1961, and the 41-year- old Navy brat was born to fly, those who knew him said. His father was a pilot and he longed to be one himself. His younger brother followed in his path.

"I had this natural inclination for flying," McCool told a National Aeronautics and Space Administration interviewer before the mission. "And I think it's just something that subconsciously just led me into an aviation career. ... So I think parental influence is probably the biggest motivator behind everything that's led me to become an astronaut."

McCool lived his middle school and early high school years in Guam, where he was a swimmer who joined the track team just to meet a girl who was a runner. A few years later, she became his wife. The couple has three children.

He moved to Texas in time to graduate third in his class from Lubbock's Coronado High in 1979. On the shuttle flight, McCool brought with him into space a "rowdy rag" - one of those towels students wave at sporting events - emblazoned with the school's mustang mascot.

"He was going to bring it back to us," said Sharon Kingston, who taught honors English to the young McCool.

The gift from the Class of 1979 to the high school is the large sign facing 34th Street. Yesterday, it was nearly covered with American flags and flowers in tribute to those who were lost so suddenly. Those who knew McCool are talking about creating a scholarship in memory of the former Eagle Scout, honor student and track star.

"Whatever Willie did, he made a super job of it - the most dependable boy you've ever seen," said Ed R. Jarman, now retired, who taught McCool in the 1970s.

When McCool arrived in Annapolis, Al Cantello was his track coach at the Naval Academy. Cantello swelled with pride as he watched the shuttle launch on a day that now seems so long ago. As the spacecraft went into orbit, he could hear the voice of Willie McCool, the tough kid with the steely blue eyes he coached all those years before.

"It's a voice I know like my own voice," said Cantello, who still coaches at the academy.

When he came to watch the liftoff, Cantello brought with him a pennant with 38 hand-embroidered stars on it - one for each year Cantello coached that Navy beat Army. McCool took that with him, too.

It was McCool who had tutored Cantello's son in math on Saturday nights - instead of attending parties with other midshipmen.

Cantello's wife, Jackie, remembers when McCool received his first demerit at the academy - for driving through the gates with a young woman in his car. The young midshipman was relieved, she said, because the pressure to be perfect was off.

Still, he came pretty close academically. He graduated second in his class at the academy.

"I think he got his first B when he went to graduate school," she said.

He went on to earn two master's degrees - one in computer sciences from the University of Maryland in 1985 and another in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1992.

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