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Services set for astronaut McCool, a 'Prowler guy'

Columbia astronaut William McCool, a self-described “Prowler guy” and a former Eagle Scout, will be remembered in a memorial service at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Friday at 2 p.m.

The service will be at the Prowler Memorial inside the Ault Field base. The service is open to Navy personnel, their family and friends, as well as civilian personnel from the base.

Navy Cmdr. McCool, 41, was pilot of the space shuttle Columbia, STS-107, when it broke up over Texas Saturday morning and killed all seven astronauts aboard. Mourners all over the nation are holding memorial services for the astronauts this week. Rangers at Olympic National Park, where McCool loved to go camping with his family, put up a small tribute to him at the Port Angeles Visitors’ Center.

President George W. Bush attended a service at the Johnson Space Center Tuesday and spoke about each astronaut individually.

“The Columbia’s pilot was Commander Willie McCool, whom friends knew as the most steady and dependable of men,” Bush said. “In Lubbock today, they’re thinking back to the Eagle Scout who became a distinguished naval officer and a fearless test pilot.

“One friend remembers Willy this way, ‘He was blessed, and we were blessed to know him.’”

McCool was born in San Diego on Sept. 23, 1961. He graduated from Coronado High School in Lubbock, Texas, in 1979.

McCool also spent considerable time on Whidbey Island, as a EA-6B pilot, during his distinguished career. He and his wife, Lani, and their three sons — Sean, Christopher and Cameron — were living in Anacortes when a NASA official called McCool in 1996.

At the time, McCool was administration and operations officer with Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 132 aboard the USS Enterprise. He was embarked on the carrier for the final pre-deployment at-sea period when NASA asked him if he wanted to be an astronaut. He had interviewed with NASA the year before.

“Fate just seemed to be looking out for me,” McCool said in a 2001 interview with the Whidbey News-Times.

McCool, also a test pilot, fondly remembered the excitement of flying Prowlers, though he said he was definitely looking forward to going into space and looking down at earth from 150 miles up.

“I miss the thrill of flying to a carrier,” McCool said two years ago. “I’d say to the folks who are flying in Prowlers, they’re still enjoying an exciting thing.”

While the astronauts were orbiting the planet for about 16 days, they got the chance to communicate with people around the planet through question-and-answer e-mail exchanges, which were available through the NASA Web site.

McCool answered questions about what the g-forces feel like during lift off and what it’s like to sleep in zero-gravity space.

“The sensation of the gs is through the chest because we’re laying on our back, rather than from head to toe,” he wrote. “So it’s kind of like a bear standing on your chest, and for that last minute, it’s rather fatiguing and difficult to — for example — to twist your head left and right or to reach for a checklist or a switch. And the final g sensation that we feel is the most sensational. It’s going from the 3 gs instantaneously to zero g floating sensation when the main engines cut off.”

McCool also wrote that he had difficulty sleeping without gravity at first, but he eventually adjusted to the weirdness of it. “I found it a little bit unsettling and difficult to sleep the first day or two primarily because I was floating,” he wrote. “And in a small, dark cocoon, you tend to get vertigo as you’re floating, and it’s not necessarily a comfortable feeling.”

According to NASA, McCool was involved in several experiments aboard the space shuttle. They were the European Space Agency (ESA) Advanced Respiratory Monitoring System (ARMS); ESA Biopack (eight experiments); Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment (MEIDEX); and the Physiology and Biochemistry Team (PhAB4) suite of experiments, which included Calcium Kinetics, Latent Virus Shedding, Protein Turnover and Renal Stone Risk. He was also responsible for maneuvering Columbia as part of several experiments mounted in the shuttle’s payload bay.

It seems that McCool was always an over-achiever. He graduated second in a class of 1,083 from the US Naval Academy in 1983, earning a degree in applied science. He received 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.

McCool first came to Whidbey in 1986 when he was assigned to VAQ-129 for initial Prowler training. His first operational tour was with VAQ-133 and he made two deployments aboard the USS Coral Sea to the Mediterranean.

In November 1989, McCool was selected for the postgraduate and test pilot program. After graduating in 1992, he worked as a TA-4J and EA-6B test pilot at Patuxent River, Md. Following that tour, McCool returned to Whidbey Island and was with VAQ-132 until the call came from NASA.

McCool had more than 2,800 hours flight experience in 24 aircraft and more than 400 carrier arrestments. And he wasn’t a slouch in his private life either. His hobbies included running, mountain biking, back-country hiking and camping, swimming, playing guitar and chess.

McCool enjoyed Olympic National Park so much that he brought a chuck of rock from the park with him into space. Barb Maynes, the public affairs officer for the park, explained that each astronaut gets to take a memento from an organization with him or her into space, then the astronaut returns the memento afterward. McCool wanted to honor the park, so rangers sent him a small piece of basalt, which is the lava rock underlying the region.

Before McCool went to space, the rangers had put up a small countertop display about him with a letter he wrote and a photo of him in his spacesuit holding the rock. After the tragedy, rangers added a message to the display explaining that they are mourning his loss.

In Houston Tuesday, President Bush expressed condolences to the families of the astronauts, but promised that the mission of the space agency will continue.

“To the children who miss your mom or dad so much today,” he said, “you need to know, they love you, and that love will always be with you. They were proud of you, and you can be proud of them for the rest of your life.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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