A service for one who dared to `soar through outer space'

Naval Academy graduate, astronaut McCool honored at ceremony in Annapolis

March 02, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Exactly a month after his first space flight ended in catastrophe, astronaut William C. McCool was remembered yesterday at the Naval Academy for academic brilliance, running prowess and especially for his humility, a rare commodity in the competitive world of aspiring fighter jocks and submariners.

Craig Williams, an academy roommate in McCool's Class of 1983, told 400 family members, Navy colleagues and friends in the academy chapel about a memorable conversation on Service Selection Day, the nail-biting annual occasion when graduating midshipmen learn their military assignments.

Williams said he asked Willie McCool to come and hang out while they awaited the big announcement and was surprised when McCool begged off, saying he had a lot to do. Wondering why his roommate didn't seem to be suffering from the anxiety his classmates felt, Williams got suspicious.

"What is your class rank?" he asked.

"Uh, first," McCool replied. Williams had no idea his modest pal ranked at the top of the class of 1,083 students, which was why the lanky cross-country team captain was in little doubt that he'd get the coveted place in flight school he was seeking.

Williams, a Navy commander, took credit for distracting McCool so much in their last months at the academy that he slipped from first to second in the class. Before his fateful flight as pilot of the space shuttle Columbia, Williams sent McCool a joshing letter apologizing and wondering just what the 41-year-old astronaut might have made of himself had he achieved the No. 1 spot at Annapolis 20 years ago.

The academy's mastery of tradition and ceremony was on crisp display during the 90-minute remembrance inside and outside the century-old chapel, built above the tomb of naval hero John Paul Jones. A Navy harpist played. Mourners sang the 19th-century Navy Hymn ("Eternal Father, Strong to Save") with a verse added in 1961 to recognize the hazards of spaceflight: "Oh, hear us when we seek thy grace/ For those who soar through outer space."

In the front pew sat McCool's wife of 10 years, Atilana, whom he met while attending high school on the island of Guam, where his father was stationed as a Navy pilot in the 1970s. Beside her were the couple's three sons from her earlier marriage, Sean, 22, Christopher, 20, and Cameron, 15. Behind them sat McCool's parents, Barry and Audrey, who had watched the Columbia pass over their Las Vegas home moments before its breakup Feb. 1, his sister Kirstie and his brother Shawn, an Army helicopter pilot.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and the Naval Academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Richard J. Naughton, were in attendance, along with dozens of military officers and current midshipmen from McCool's company. McCool was one of 51 academy graduates who have become astronauts, more than from any other institution, officials said.

Outside the chapel after the service, a seven-member Navy honor guard fired three volleys, a bugler played taps, and a second honor guard folded an American flag in tight choreography. The flag was handed to McCool's widow by Rear Adm. John P. Cryer III, who heads the Navy's space operations command.

McCool spent several years as a test pilot at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary's County, where he met a Catholic priest while jogging. The two became friends, and the Rev. John M. Barry guided McCool through a conversion to Catholicism a decade ago. Shortly before Columbia's launch Jan. 16, Barry said McCool asked for absolution, the Catholic ritual in which a person confesses his sins and asks forgiveness.

Navy Capt. Steve Gnessi, who worked closely with McCool during two tours of duty, said McCool was one of a handful of pilots who ever recovered an EA6B Prowler, a Navy warplane flown from aircraft carriers, from a spin. Gnessi also recalled the hushed crowd surrounding McCool aboard the carrier Enterprise in 1996, when he took a call from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration informing him of his selection as an astronaut.

Gnessi choked up as he recalled that McCool then took him aside and expressed concern that he would "let the squadron down" if he left a few days early for his new assignment.

Within NASA's ranks, too, McCool quickly distinguished himself, said Air Force Col. Steve Lindsey, a fellow shuttle pilot who described McCool's leadership in designing a new cockpit for future shuttles. "His design will fly as long as the shuttle flies," Lindsey said.

In his career, McCool logged 2,800 hours flying 24 kinds of aircraft, but several speakers remarked on his intense excitement about his first ride into space. That feeling came through in an e-mail McCool sent his family and friends from Columbia a week before his death that was read in part at the memorial service.

"Greetings from 150 miles above the Earth!" he wrote, apologizing that the "overwhelming smorgasbord of new experiences" prevented him from writing individual notes.

In a P.S., McCool described the view:

"As I write, we just experienced a sunset over the Pacific, just east of Chile. I'm sitting on the flight deck in the CDR [commander] seat (front right) with a view of the Earth moving gracefully by. Sunsets and sunrises from space come every 45 minutes, and last only about 30 seconds, but the colors are stunning. In a single view I see looking out at the edge of the Earth - red at the horizon line, blending to orange, then yellow; followed by a thin white line, then light blue, gradually turning to dark blue, then various gradually darker shades of gray, then black with a million stars above. It's breathtaking!"

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