WILLIAM C. MCCOOL, CDR, USN
William McCool '83
Date of birth: September 23, 1961
Date of death: February 1, 2003
PERSONAL DATA: Born September 23, 1961 in San Diego, California. Died on February 1, 2003 over the southern United States when Space Shuttle Columbia and the crew perished during entry, 16 minutes prior to scheduled landing. He is survived by his wife and children. He enjoyed running, mountain biking, back country hiking/camping, swimming, playing guitar, chess.
EDUCATION: Graduated from Coronado High School, Lubbock, Texas, in 1979; received a bachelor of science degree in applied science from the US Naval Academy in 1983, a master of science degree in computer science from the University of Maryland in 1985, and a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in 1992.
ORGANIZATIONS: U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association.
AWARDS: Posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the Defense Distinguished Service Medal (DDSM).
SPECIAL HONORS: Eagle Scout; graduated second of 1,083 in the Class of 1983 at the US Naval Academy; presented Outstanding Student and Best DT-II Thesis awards as graduate of U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Class 101; awarded Navy Commendation Medals (2), Navy Achievement Medals (2), and various other service awards.
EXPERIENCE: McCool completed flight training in August 1986 and was assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 129 at Whidbey Island, Washington, for initial EA-6B Prowler training. His first operational tour was with Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 133, where he made two deployments aboard USS CORAL SEA (CV-43) to the Mediterranean Sea, and received designation as a wing qualified landing signal officer (LSO). In November 1989, he was selected for the Naval Postgraduate School/Test Pilot School (TPS) Cooperative Education Program. After graduating from TPS in June 1992, he worked as TA-4J and EA-6B test pilot in Flight Systems Department of Strike Aircraft Test Directorate at Patuxent River, Maryland. He was responsible for the management and conduct of a wide variety of projects, ranging from airframe fatigue life studies to numerous avionics upgrades. His primary efforts, however, were dedicated to flight test of the Advanced Capability (ADVCAP) EA-6B. Following his Patuxent River tour, McCool returned to Whidbey Island, and was assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 132 aboard USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65). He served as Administrative and Operations Officer with the squadron through their work-up cycle, receiving notice of NASA selection while embarked on ENTERPRISE for her final pre-deployment at-sea period.
McCool accumulated over 2,800 hours flight experience in 24 aircraft and over 400 carrier arrestments.
NASA EXPERIENCE: Selected by NASA in April 1996, McCool reported to the Johnson Space Center in August 1996. He completed two years of training and evaluation, and was qualified for flight assignment as a pilot. Initially assigned to the Computer Support Branch, McCool also served as Technical Assistant to the Director of Flight Crew Operations, and worked Shuttle cockpit upgrade issues for the Astronaut Office. He was the pilot on STS-107, logging 15 days, 22 hours and 20 minutes in space.
SPACE FLIGHT EXPERIENCE: STS-107 Columbia (Jan. 16 to Feb. 1, 2003). The 16-day flight was a dedicated science and research mission. Working 24 hours a day, in two alternating shifts, the crew successfully conducted approximately 80 experiments. The STS-107 mission ended abruptly on February 1, 2003 when Space Shuttle Columbia and the crew perished during entry, 16 minutes before scheduled landing.
McCool completed flight training and was designated a Naval Aviator in August 1986. He was assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 129 (VAQ-129) at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, for initial EA-6B Prowler training. His first operational tour was with Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 133 (VAQ-133), where he made two deployments aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and received designation as a wing-qualified Landing Signal Officer (LSO). In November 1989, he was selected for the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School/Test Pilot School (TPS) Cooperative Education Program.
After graduating from TPS in June 1992, he worked as a TA-4J and EA-6B test pilot in Flight Systems Department of Strike Aircraft Test Directorate at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. He was responsible for the management and conduct of a wide variety of projects, ranging from airframe fatigue life studies to numerous avionics upgrades. His primary efforts, however, were dedicated to flight test of the Advanced Capability (ADVCAP) EA-6B. Following his Patuxent River tour, McCool returned to Whidbey Island, and was assigned to Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 132 (VAQ-132) aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He served as Administrative and Operations Officer with the squadron through their work-up cycle, receiving notice of his NASA selection while embarked on Enterprise for her final pre-deployment at sea period.
McCool accumulated over 2,800 hours flight experience in 24 aircraft and over 400 carrier arrestments.
Willie always gave his best effort to anything that he undertook - whether it was his favorite activity (running), piloting a plane for the Navy, piloting the shuttle for NASA or, most importantly - providing love and support for his family and friends. Audrey McCool
16 Minutes From Home
The article below is from the December 2005 issue of Runners World. It was updated in 2016 and reposted again in 2018.
As a father, husband, runner, and astronaut, Willie McCool seemed to inspire everyone who knew him. Even at the end. And even now.
By Steve Friedman From the December 2005 issue
Most people know what happened. That a piece of foam broke off Columbia's external fuel tank and hit the shuttle's left wing. That NASA officials on the ground gravely underestimated the severity of the damage. That, in fact, the damage caused the shuttle to burn and break into pieces in the skies over Texas, just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing on a clear, bright Saturday morning in February nearly three years ago. What everyone doesn't know is something NASA investigators learned when they sifted through and analyzed the wrecked vessel on the ground.
Among the shuttle parts that investigators recovered was a damaged but intact piece of equipment called the R-2 instrument panel. When they unfolded it, they saw a series of switches that, according to NASA investigator Jon Clark, appeared to have been engaged and manipulated in the final minutes of the doomed astronauts' lives by the person in the shuttle's right seat—the pilot. Although NASA's official report is inconclusive, one theory is that the pilot was making adjustments and maneuvers even as Columbia was pitching and spinning toward Earth. That even when death was certainly imminent and known to the crew, Willie McCool was still trying to save the shuttle. Clark, whose wife, Laurel, died along with McCool and five others in the crash, says that what McCool did in those final moments "was a big deal. A very big deal."
Willie McCool was 41 years old when he died that morning, and his singular achievements are what the obituaries and eulogies focused on: Eagle scout, exceptional runner, test pilot, astronaut. He died serving his country, was publicly mourned. Towns where he lived erected statues in his honor. He was a hero, in every conventional sense of the word, pronounced so at a memorial service by no less a person than the president of the United States. He lived a life deserving of the public recognition he has received.
But to really know Willie McCool is to explore a private world where the heroism is less obvious, but no less profound. Where the actions are human, but extraordinary. To understand Willie McCool you need to step back from the statues and take a closer look at the life.
They met in Guam, where Willie's father, a Navy pilot, was stationed. Willie was blond, blue-eyed, and pasty-skinned, lean and sinewy. Atilana Vallelos had black hair and dark eyes and brown skin. He sat behind her in their high school speech class, and for months neither spoke to each other. She went by Lani. He had changed his name from Willy to Willie, because he idolized Willie Mays. "Which is cute," Lani says, "because he's so white."
When they finally spoke, they talked about sports. Lani Vallelos told Willie McCool that she was a sprinter. And that's when Willie, a swimmer, discovered running.
"Lani," he wrote to her, after he had joined the track team, after he had set records in the 1500- and 5,000-meter races for Guam's John F. Kennedy High School track team, "of all the people to whom I owe thanks for getting me into track and influencing me to continue on, I think you deserve the most thanks. If it hadn't been for you…I never would have joined track. Because of your efforts I have finally found something that I enjoy doing and that I do, in all modesty, fairly well.
"Lots of times in a race when my whole body aches, my lungs are burning, my stomach hurts, I feel like stopping and quitting, just saying, 'The hell with this.' But then I think to myself, What would Lani think if I just stopped and quit? Finish the race for Lani! Also lots of times, just to get my mind off the pain and off the race, I'll just kind of relax and 'run dream' about you and being together and of the times we had together in the past and the times I wish we could have in the future. Having you as my own sure makes my life an awful lot less painful (most of the time) and much more enjoyable."
He was 15 years old.
After his sophomore year Willie and his family moved to Lubbock, Texas, where Barent McCool had been transferred. Texas had many more, and swifter, teenagers than Guam did. Impressing people with his running wouldn't be easy. He found other ways.
Willie was in a gym, fooling around with a jump rope. His friend Dale Somers had told Willie that one minute of jumping rope expends the same amount of energy as running six minutes. So Willie jumped rope for five minutes. Then another five minutes. Dale yelled to him. Go another five and I'll buy you a Coke. Five minutes later, another high school pal joined in. Another five minutes, he yelled to Willie, and you're a quarter richer. Then one of the dads saw what was going on. Willie, the dad said, five more minutes and I'll buy you a steak dinner.
He jumped rope for 35 minutes.
Somers was on the Coronado High School basketball team, and in the summers he and Willie would play one-on-one. Willie wasn't very good, but when he lost, he would demand another game. And another. And another. Sometimes, the boys would still be playing—and Willie would still be losing—when day turned to Texas twilight.
While running and competing and earning grades good enough to get nominated for the United States Naval Academy, Willie was also a lovesick adolescent. He just wasn't a delusional one. He still wrote to Lani, and Lani wrote back. But after awhile what was there to say? Besides, Willie developed a crush on a girl named Becky. It took him three months to ask her to lunch. That first date he spent most of it talking about his girlfriend on the island. But she wasn't his girlfriend any more. How could she be, an ocean between them? Lani dated, got pregnant and married, had two children.
Adolescent crushes are heady things, but they don't last.
"My earliest, vivid memory of him?" Al Cantello asks. "I was screaming at him, something about a crappy workout. Now, most kids, they'd listen, then say, 'Yes, but, yes, but,' but not Willie. He just looked straight at me, with those big steely blue eyes, taking it all in."
It was 1979, McCool's first, or plebe, year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and Cantello's 15th year as coach there. He knew "hardly anything" about the runner from Texas. "Willie had a modest high school career. Which was fine by me. What we do here is we take an athlete, and we develop him." Here's how: "We're in a meeting," Cantello remembers, "and I say, 'Okay, Willie, what percent of you is devoted to running?' Willie says, 'I don't know, with graduation, service, maybe 20 percent?' And I say, 'Willie, you'll never be a friggin' runner!'"
Early in their relationship, Cantello told McCool that he was nothing but a baton. It's a standard Cantello trope, one in a series of fierce and ego-deflating lessons the coach imparts to virtually all his plebes. Maybe you won some high school races, maybe you're going to be a big-shot officer one day, he'd tell the boys. But really, you're nothing special. Don't forget it. When it comes down to it, "You're nothing but a baton, carrying DNA from one generation to the next."
McCool became the most disciplined, dedicated baton Cantello had ever seen. He listened to the coach's instructions about technique, and employed them. He listened to the coach's lessons about nutrition and rest, and followed them. He was in bed by 10, asleep by 11, every night of his college career. He listened to the coach's lectures about giving your all, and gave his all.
All that work made him a better runner, but not a great one. By the end of his Navy career, he had the 26th fastest time ever, 24:27, by a midshipman on the Naval Academy's five-mile cross-country course. Which means his name isn't on the plaque in the glass case of the athletic department building. That's reserved for the 25 fastest. His greatest accomplishment as a Navy runner occurred when he medaled in the 10,000 meters in the league outdoor championships. Cantello can't remember much else.
Looking back, the coach wonders whether Willie could have been better had he been tougher, a bit more ruthless. "He was a little bit sheltered," Cantello says. "If someone stepped on his toes during a race, Willie would say,"—here Cantello affects a high-pitched whine—"'That's poor sportsmanship.' Meanwhile, a guy from New Jersey is running next to him, getting ready to throw an elbow, saying, 'I'm gonna put that jerk in lane three.'"
But Willie was other things. He was relentlessly cheerful, given to striding up and down the hallways of his dorm, exclaiming, "Five weeks till the meet. Beat Army!" He was elected captain of the cross-country team as a senior, the guy the team rallied around. "He was energetic, he was enthusiastic, he was smart," says Mark Donahue, the captain when McCool entered the Academy. "When I look back on it, the word that comes to mind is innocent." McCool was the brainy runner that Cantello asked to help his son with algebra one Saturday night. For a midshipman, a Saturday night is a precious thing, one of the only times he is allowed off the Academy grounds. McCool didn't hesitate.
When he graduated from the Academy in 1983, he was ranked second in his class. "He made more of himself in four years than anyone I can remember," Cantello says. Then the coach pauses. "But is he the most inspirational? You gotta remember. I've been here 43 years."
A couple of years later, when he was studying for his masters in computer science at the University of Maryland, Willie made a point of taking care of Cantello's newest group of batons. He drove the plebes to meets. He joined them in practice. He filled up the team cooler with water. Every night before a meet, he invited them to his condominium in Crofton, eight miles west of Annapolis. He cooked them spaghetti. ("Willie knew as much about making spaghetti sauce as..." Cantello says mournfully. "He used carrots! That's a misdemeanor. That's a no-no.") But the batons were grateful.
"He protected all of us," Ron Harris, a plebe in 1983, says. The plebes called McCool's condominium the "Bat Cave" and treasured their time there. They didn't know what lay ahead for him, the greatness in store. They just knew the guy making funny spaghetti sauce. "The amazing thing," Harris remembers, "was that he had so much time for us. He had time for everything."
It was about this time that Willie heard from another Navy man that Lani was separated from her husband. Willie hadn't forgotten her. Sometimes when he ran with his Navy teammates he talked about the girl he had been in love with in the South Pacific, the one with the black hair who got him into running in the first place. He wrote to her and she wrote back. He flew out to see her in Tempe, Arizona, where she was finishing college, and they drove to a nearby football stadium. He handed her his watch, which she had used to time him while he ran quarter miles on Guam. She had always loved watching Willie run. She knew how happy it made him.
"Everything came back," Lani says. "The smells, the phone calls. It was like we had never been apart. My heart...it jumped. You know the saying about seeing a rainbow? I was seeing double rainbows."
After her divorce, Lani and Willie were married in 1986. She knew how much he loved children and that he would be a wonderful father to her two boys; Sean was then 5, Christopher was 3. "I asked him if he wanted kids," Lani says. "And he said, I already have kids. We have kids." But another son, Cameron, was born on September 15, 1987. The next day McCool, by then a Navy pilot, left for a six-month tour of duty aboard an aircraft carrier.
Willie and Lani and the boys spent most of the next decade in Washington State, in the town of Anacortes, just a short drive from the naval base on Whidbey Island, where McCool flew the Prowler, a four-person aircraft used for jamming radar and other electronic warfare tactics. Once, at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, he pulled a Prowler out of a spiral, or a "death spin." No one had ever done it before. Today, every Prowler pilot and would-be pilot studies what McCool did that day; it's the official Navy procedure for pulling a Prowler out of a spiral.
His work meant Willie was gone from home a lot, but Lani had the children to take care of, and her passion for photography, and she played the harp that Willie had bought for her. Lani was a military man's daughter. So she knew the drill. When Willie was home they played chess together, and went on backpacking trips with the kids. He wrote her poetry.
In 1996, NASA selected McCool for its space program. The family moved to Houston, where Willie joined 43 others in a group of future shuttle astronauts—they called themselves "the sardines" because there were so many. It was the largest group of shuttle astronauts since the 1978 class. By then McCool, the Navy pilot, had amassed more than 2,800 hours of flight experience in 24 aircraft and made more than 400 landings on aircraft carriers, which even among pilots is a very big deal.
But the other sardines were big deals, too. They had been selected from a pool of 2,400 applicants. McCool was surrounded by people just like him. There was a former circus gymnast, who was also a fighter pilot and doctor. There was a flight surgeon who could name most birds—in Latin. Joining McCool on the shuttle Columbia would be an Israeli Air Force colonel, son of Holocaust survivors, who flew on the mission that had destroyed Iraq's nascent nuclear reactors in 1981. Top guns all, oozing competitive juju.
Steve MacLean was one of the sardines. What struck him most about McCool wasn't his intelligence, or his skills, or his competitive zeal (though MacLean says all were extraordinary, even by NASA standards). What MacLean remembers is watching McCool run. "It was like he was on wheels," MacLean says. "It was a thing of beauty." What he remembers even more is how he treated others, especially children. At weekly soccer games involving astronauts and their families, a goal couldn't be scored until the smallest kid playing had touched the ball at least once—a rule McCool pushed for. As MacLean says, "When he was talking to somebody, no matter who it was, that person was very important."
Almost every day, at twilight, whether in Houston or in Anacortes, Willie would come home and find Lani cooking dinner for the kids. He loved his work, but he hated that he was gone so much. He would offer to help. Lani would decline. He'd insist. She'd tell him to go for a run. Sometimes, she'd watch him take off. "It looked like he ran on air," she says.
Half an hour or an hour later he would come in, dripping with sweat, and he would slam a knight to a new position on their chessboard in the living room, or write a line of poetry. And then he would lie on the living room floor and stretch, and Lani would play her harp as the dinner cooked. And Willie would move closer to Lani. And closer. Until finally, he was stretching his legs while he leaned against Lani.
"Our friends said we were the luckiest people in the world," Lani says. "And they were right."
One day, McCool asked Cameron to join him on a run. But his son, then 13, didn't want to. "I have too much homework," he'd say. McCool promised to help him with the homework if he'd run. "Well, then, I'm too sore." McCool promised he'd feel better after a run. He'd run, but the teenager would whine about it. For Willie's 41st birthday, a few months before the shuttle launch, Cameron gave his dad a card, promising 15 "complaint-free runs, to be used whenever you want."
Lani told her husband to entertain the boy, to make the running more fun. She told Willie to tell him stories, to take the boy's mind off how much he hurt.
But Willie was a natural listener, not a talker. Still, he tried. He began by retelling novels he thought a teenage boy would like. The first, told over weeks and weeks of running, was The Worthing Saga, by Orson Scott Card. By the end of the book, Cameron could talk and run without gasping. Then there were other novels—Cameron can't remember them all—and now that the boy could talk without gasping, they would discuss the works. They'd talk about "the philosophy behind the stories or just ideas in general," says Cameron.
Willie ran out of new novels. He started telling his own stories.
He talked about throwing berries at cars on Guam, getting in trouble. He talked about building model airplanes with his father. Those were fine, but Cameron wanted stories from the Academy. He wanted to hear about his father's life as a plebe, how he had to tuck his chin into his chest and recite dinner menus and jet parts while upperclassmen screamed at him. He wanted to hear about the ice-cream eating contests his father participated in as a senior, how a plebe stood behind him and massaged his temples to prevent "freeze" headaches. Willie wouldn't just tell the stories, he would act them out—as the frightened plebe, the screaming midshipman, the ice-cream gulping senior. By the time his father flew into space, Cameron had quit counting the poles. They were running three and a half miles from the gates of NASA. Three and a half miles out, three and a half miles back.
Just a few weeks before McCool and the rest of the Columbia crew would head into space, in December 2002, he went for a run with a man named Andy Cline, whom he had met on a backpacking trip a year earlier.
The men ran in Anacortes, where the McCools planned to return full-time after the Columbia mission. McCool wanted to show Cline a spot he had discovered. They ran through the Anacortes Forest Lands to Cranberry Lake. Cline told the astronaut how he wanted to run faster, how he would like, for once in his life, to break the three-hour mark in a marathon.
"And Willie said that was no problem, that he'd pace me and that he would help me get to that. And I believed him. When you were with him, you felt like you had his undivided attention. That life seemed pretty clear."
McCool and Cline always talked a lot on their runs, but on this run they talked even more than usual. "About God and faith, and what that looks like and the variability of that," Cline remembers. "He said that everyone of us has some sort of faith and the trick was in recognizing it, in seeing it.
"And I know it sounds odd to say this, but I couldn't help thinking as we talked. And what I thought was, This might be the last time I ever see Willie."
We like our heroes' lives to adhere to the simple and ascending trajectory we associate with Great Men. And in its public outlines, Willie McCool's life was all of that. A disciplined and strong-willed distance runner from an early age, a little boy who built and flew model airplanes, an honors student who loved chemistry and poetry equally well.
But his life wasn't quite so simple. No one's is. Willie's biological father was a heavy drinker known to have a bad temper and quick to take it out on his wife, Audrey, his son, and Kirstie, Willie's little sister. After his parents divorced, Willie took it upon himself to be Kirstie's protector when they went to visit their dad. Soon, the visits stopped altogether. Audrey was a dietitian then, in Southern California, working full-time, doing her best to take care of her children, and to keep her husband from finding them. "We had to grow up young and early," says Kirstie Chadwick.
Can a hero come only from a crucible of agony? Did McCool watch out for others because he had a tough childhood? Did he run because he had discovered a place where his life was not so painful? Did his biological father—by most accounts a highly intelligent man—pass on some of his best genetic material to his son? Did Barent McCool, Willie's adoptive father—a Navy pilot and by all accounts a loving if demanding and unsentimental teacher—mold the boy who became his son into such a perfectionist? Was it Audrey's drive and need that turned Willie into a man before he was even a teenager? There's a theory for every question. One sounds as good as another. None matter too much.
_Just look closer at the life._
Lani McCool is gazing at a hawk in a tree, with his wings spread, drying. She has just hiked 20 minutes or so to Sares Bluff, a scenic outlook just a few minutes' drive from her home in Anacortes. It is cool, late summer in the Pacific Northwest and she is happy. She wishes more people would understand that joy is something Willie would have wanted.
"I'll be out somewhere, maybe at a function involving NASA, and I'll be throwing my head back laughing and people will stare and say, 'There's Willie McCool's widow.' What do people want? That we continue grieving forever?"
Late summer, two and a half years since the accident, and for the past two days she has been remembering the 24 years they knew each other, the 17 and a half years they were married. We have visited the naval station at Whidbey Island to pay respects at the memorial for Willie. There, engraved at the base of a replica of the Prowler, is "CDR William McCool STS-107 Columbia 1 Feb 2003." Lani traces a heart in the concrete with her finger. We have poked around her house, looked at the chessboard where he used to slam pieces after his run, at the harp Lani played while Willie leaned against her legs. She has shown poetry he wrote to her, photographs she took of him.
The past two and a half years haven't been easy. His Navy and NASA files are in the garage. She managed to open one box, but couldn't open any more. She thinks about the trip to Switzerland he'd been promising since she saw double rainbows. She thinks about the darkroom he was going to build for her.
She's tried to go to church, but every time she got close, she started crying, "because the Eucharist is as close as we get to someone who's dead," and that's reminded her of the times she and Willie attended church together. Sometimes, because of terrible allergies, she couldn't walk to the front of the church to receive communion. So Willie would transfer part of the Eucharist to her, and people thought they were kissing and it scandalized the congregation, and it makes her laugh to think about it.
Soon she will drive Cameron to college in Seattle, and after she drops him off, and returns home, she will pass a theater and see on the marquee the name of the film, The Corpse Bride, and she will break down sobbing.
She has five books on her bed, is reading all of them, but in the afternoon overlooking the Pacific Ocean she can't remember the name of a single one. Sometimes she looks at Willie's books. Books of Russian, which he was teaching himself. The Odyssey. Macbeth. Sometimes she leafs through them. In the margins of a biography of Einstein, she found something that made her smile. Willie's delighted scrawl: "Light Bends!!!"
Life hasn't been easy, but it has been...life. It has been good. That was something Willie and Lani always agreed on. That it was good. That it should be good. "There are so many gifts," she says. The poems he wrote, the letters he sent. The memories she has of him. The future.
"I miss him horribly," she says. "It was a loss, but I realized it was okay, because we lived a good life. I have no regrets. I don't think I ever said he died too young...
"People misinterpret it, because I'd give anything to have him back, but he's not here. I am okay. I miss Willie and I loved him. But I am okay."
She attended the most recent launch, on July 26, because she feels like her husband's death and the lessons NASA learned from it will help other astronauts. Still, she is much more at home in Birkenstocks and leggings than pearls and a dress. She says that all the memorials for the Columbia crew members were somewhat easier to take, because "I love wearing black." In the hotel rooms afterward, she says, "I'd get a plate of chocolates and I'd take a bite out of each—I didn't have to worry about being good."
She knows that some other naval wives view her with something other than love. She knows that she doesn't quite fit the image of a military spouse. She says that Willie adored that about her. Some of his friends say the same thing. She shows me a poem that he read to her from space; the last time she heard his voice.
"He said, 'Hold on, I've got something here.' And then he read this: 'I've witnessed the beauty of Earth from space, far, far above. What a treasure it is to behold. But I would trade this view for your embrace, my sweet love, for only you enrapture my soul.'
"That was the last two minutes I heard him. So yeah," she says, "I feel lucky."
Andy Cline is running. Some days it's in the Anacortes Forest Lands, some days it's somewhere else near his new home in the Pacific Northwest. He still wants to do a marathon in less than three hours, but he doesn't know if he'll be able to. Today, the running isn't easy. It doesn't feel good.
"And I'm dying," Cline says. "And then I'm thinking, If Willie were here, he'd kick it up a notch. So that's what I do."
Cameron stopped running as the launch date got closer, then his father went into quarantine, and then the Columbia accident. But after awhile, he started again. As he ran, he says, "I was thinking in the back of my head that I was doing it for him, but always remembering that he had been doing it for me." Then Sean, his oldest brother, said he wanted to run, too. But he wasn't in the greatest shape. So Cameron set up a schedule. He encouraged his brother to tune out his pain. And he told him stories. "Like my dad did for me."
Al Cantello is sitting in his office at the Naval Academy. On his wall is a framed sweatshirt that Willie wore. In Cantello's file cabinet are the size 10 and a half white Air Pegasus shoes that Lani mailed after the accident. In his drawer is a letter McCool wrote to the coach, inviting him to the launch: "Your coaching laid a foundation of discipline, drive, and passion that has carried me across the many milestones of my life. With boundless appreciation, Willie."
Willie McCool may have been heroic for all the conventional reasons—not least of which that he died while serving his country. But what made him extraordinary, even by heroes' standards, was something else entirely. Something rare. Something almost ineffable. The way he lived his life, every day, almost every moment. The way he touched others.
The coach, former world record holder of the javelin throw, still burly and vigorous at 74, leans forward across his desk. "Look," he says of the boy whose presence seems to fill his office, "he wasn't the Second Coming. He didn't network very well. He wasn't a very good correspondent. Too much sensitivity."
This is my second day visiting with Cantello. During that time, he has talked about the crushing demands of running at Navy, politics, coaching, life. He always returns to Willie McCool. To his naiveté. His love for Lani. His death.
"Afterward," Cantello says, "there was the initial bereavement, in Houston, when the president spoke. Then, shortly after that, the vice president spoke here and some admirals, too, and a couple dozen busloads of congressmen. But it was perfunctory grieving.
"And then a year goes by and they have a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum. Candles, subdued lighting, all the appointments and trappings were there. It's supposed to be a night of solemn closure. We're supposed to be in the cathedral of this nation's highest aspirations. I look around and who's there? Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Grumman." People who didn't know Willie. People who wanted to trade on his symbolism. More perfunctory grieving.
"Here. You want to understand Willie? You should listen to this." Then Cantello pulls something from one of his desk drawers and slides it into his computer. It's a CD labeled "Willie McCool Wake Up Music 'Imagine' Aboard Space Shuttle Columbia Flight Day 15 Jan 29, 2003." It's from three days before the accident.
We sit and listen to the melancholy, aching strains of "Imagine." Then, a female voice: "Good Morning, Blue Team. The song 'Imagine' by John Lennon, was for Willie this morning." A few more bars of the music, subtle hissing that hints at the distance from Mission Control to the orbiting craft.
Then, the voice of Willie McCool. Cheerful. Enthusiastic. Still innocent. "Good morning, Linda, that song makes us think that from our orbital vantage point we observe an Earth without borders, full of peace, beauty, and magnificence, and we pray that humanity as a whole can imagine a borderless world as we see it and strive to live as one, in peace..."
The coach is looking away from the computer, away from me. In the short time I have known him, it's the first time I've seen him speechless. His eyes well up.
"Okay, Willie and your team," says the voice from Houston, "we appreciate those words and we wish everyone down here could have the view you do."
Cantello leans forward, hits his keyboard, takes the CD from the computer. Then he leans back in his chair. "What's the right way to grieve?" he asks. "Do you go to a tree, rub some sand between your fingers? Hell, I don't know." More than a few cross-country runners have told me how hard Cantello took Willie's death. Not the coach, though. "How do you grieve?" he repeats. "I'm going to tell you how I'm going to do it."
He slides a letter across his desk to me. It's a memo, "subj: CDR Willie McCool, USS Memorial at Navy XC Course." In the memo, Cantello proposes a stone marker on the cross-country course, "placed just to the left of the current tee shack (so it) would not impede golfers, runners, or golf-course management."
"This simple monument would serve to inspire generations of Navy runners, who, like Willie, endured the resolute pursuit of being a Navy runner..." Cantello sent the letter in July 2003. Still, no marker. "Man, for all practical purposes," he says, "is a son of a bitch."
Then the coach complains about golf courses, and golfers, and buildings on golf courses, and the nature of man, and about why petty-minded bureaucrats and penny pinchers are making it so damned hard to get a monument to the runner who wasn't the Second Coming, but who made more of himself than anyone Cantello ever saw. Then he says that he doesn't care how long it takes, he's going to get a monument built to Willie McCool.
He and some of his runners walked off the distance on the cross-country course, factored in Willie's best time ever on the course, figured out Willie's pace. They want the monument to stand at the top of a grassy hill, a brief level stretch of the five-mile course, just before it descends to a narrow path through trees. It's 3.1 miles from the finish line. Willie would have covered the distance in 16 minutes.
Cantello's cross-country record at Navy is 236-64-1. He has coached three All American runners, has been named the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional Coach of the Year three times. He had a 67-9-1 dual-meet record when he coached Navy's men's indoor and outdoor track teams. In 1997, the Academy Alumni Association awarded Cantello the Distinguished Athletic Leadership Award for a coach or faculty member who did the most for the physical development of the midshipmen. He has coached at the U.S. Naval Academy for 43 years.
This is how Cantello wants to be remembered: "My legacy," he says, "will be to preserve Willie's time in perpetuity for the five-mile course, so when I'm dead and gone, people will know where he was, when he was 16 minutes from home.
"I'm just carrying Willie's baton."
Story update, January 28, 2016:
Nearly 13 years after Willie McCool was killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the astronaut, runner, and devout family man's legacy endures. In December 2007, a memorial to McCool was erected on the Navy's cross-country course; his former coach Al Cantello, who had tirelessly advocated for the marker, recently finished his 53rd year coaching the Navy harriers. In 2013, a running group in McCool's hometown of Lubbock, Texas, launched the Willie McCool Memorial Half Marathon, which his parents, Barry and Audrey, attend every year.
His memory is continually honored in the lives of his wife, Lani, and their sons Sean, Christopher, and Cameron. Sean is a Marine Corps Captain and combat engineer based in Japan. In 2015, he went to the Philippines to see his grandmother and the land she had donated to house impoverished locals—the area is called the Willie McCool Gawed Kalinga Village.
Christopher, a multimedia specialist for the Samish Tribe in Washington, volunteers for Climb the Mountain, a nonprofit geared to youth speech and debate, a passion he shared with his father. Cameron, a visual artist in Brooklyn, still runs as he once did with his dad. "There's a surreal feeling that brings him back when I run, almost like hanging out with him," he says. Lani, still an avid photographer, calls McCool "the ultimate muse."
She's currently developing film taken during his NASA training. "Seeing Willie's or his crew's faces slowly appear in a tray of chemicals under the safelight's amber glow in my tiny closet darkroom…words can't begin to describe the emotions that well up," she writes.
She still attends NASA events, and after the successful test launch of the deep-space explorer vehicle Orion in December 2014, she met condolences from astronauts with Willie McCool–like optimism. "Yes, it was sad," she told them, "but if the Columbia tragedy had not occurred, what other catalyst would have started the development of these new rockets, or set their sights toward Mars?"