Next stop for NAS Whidbey pilot: space

Cmdr. Willie McCool will pilot the space shuttle Endeavour in a mission scheduled for October

“A self-proclaimed Prowler guy is now a NASA guy.And next fall, in a moment most pilots only dream about, Cmdr. Willie McCool will help steer a space shuttle right out of the earth’s atmosphere.McCool, a former pilot at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1996. Since then he’s been training non-stop for the ultimate in air travel – a seat in the cockpit of a NASA space shuttle mission.The anticipation is high, McCool said from Houston this week, where he’s spending more time than ever in simulators and pouring over the details of the upcoming trip aboard the shuttle Endeavour. You’re building to one event.The road to space started in childhood for McCool. Born in San Diego the son of a Navy flier, he felt the same skyward pull. Deep down I always wanted to fly, he says.McCool attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he graduated in 1983, second in his class of 1,083. After flight training in 1986 he did his first tour at NAS Whidbey with VAQ-129, the Prowler training squadron, then served with VAQ-133 for two years and two deployments.From there McCool went to test pilot school in Patuxent River, Md., for three years, after which he returned to NAS Whidbey for an assignment with VAQ-132.It was during a deployment with VAQ-132 in 1996, aboard the USS Enterprise, that a NASA official called and asked him if he wanted to be an astronaut. McCool had interviewed with NASA in 1995. Fate just seemed to be looking out for me, McCool says.McCool resettled in Houston with his wife Lani and their sons Sean, Christopher and Cameron. For two years McCool plunged into NASA’s core training program, during which he studied everything from shuttle flight to the Russian language. He even took courses in public relations.For the last two years McCool has filled support roles for NASA’s shuttle missions and space station project. He’s also specialized in flight software testing. All the while he’s been staying prepared for his own turn in the cockpit.His turn is up. McCool was recently selected as Lt. Col. Rick D. Husband’s co-pilot for a 16 day science mission aboard the shuttle Endeavour. The launch is slated for October. Now that he’s actually penciled in for a shuttle flight, McCool says the entire NASA training experience is taking on a new glow.As soon as we got assigned, I looked around and I was smiling inside, he says.Recent weeks have been filled with study of payloads – the experiments McCool’s mission will be conducting in space. That includes study of crystal growth at zero gravity, spider web production and combustion. (McCool concedes that studying fires in space might sound dangerous, but he assures that it’s safe.)If he could pass on a word to his Prowler compatriots at NAS Whidbey, it’s that they should appreciate their Navy flight experiences.I miss the thrill of flying to a carrier, McCool says. I’d say to the folks who are flying in Prowlers, they’re still enjoying an exciting thing.Not that he would pass up his chance to fly in space. McCool says his highest altitude so far is 45,000 feet aboard a T-38. In the cockpit of the shuttle Endeavour he’ll be 150 miles up, with a birds-eye view of planet Earth.I’m looking forward to it, he says. “