A Father's Pride: Remembering the Columbia Tragedy

Texas Tech professor Barry McCool lost his son on that fateful mission in 2003.

Barry McCool and his wife Audrey pose in front of the Willie McCool memorial statue in South Lubbock.

Barry McCool and his wife Audrey, a Texas Tech alumna, pose in front of the Willie McCool memorial statue in South Lubbock.

In the College of Human Sciences, a poster for the “Willie McCool Memorial Half Marathon and 5K Run” hangs on the office door of Texas Tech University’s Barent “Barry” McCool, an assistant professor in the Department of Restaurant, Hotel and Institutional Management.

McCool beams with pride while speaking of his eldest son, Willie. For a time, McCool introduced him as “my astronaut son,” but says that is not how Willie wished to be known.

“He pulled me aside and said ‘Dad, don’t embarrass me like that. I’m just a regular guy. I’m just a Navy pilot,’” McCool says. “He did not wear his accomplishments on his sleeve. He wasn’t that type of guy.”

The astronaut title did not define Willie McCool then, but it’s inevitable now. He and Texas Tech graduate Rick Husband (mechanical engineering, 1980) were among the seven astronauts killed when Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003.

Willie’s proud parents flew to Florida for all the festivities leading up to and including the launch. They then returned to Las Vegas, their home at the time. Together, they followed the mission on television and online. They even exchanged emails with Willie, as he orbited Earth. The McCools opted not to return for the landing, however.

“My wife and daughter had an opportunity to see Endeavour land,” McCool says. “The shuttle was only visible for 60 seconds before it disappeared behind the palm trees. The astronauts are then quarantined before re-emerging in Houston. It wasn’t going to be cost effective, so we decided to wait until we could see Willie.”

So on the morning Columbia reentered the atmosphere, the McCools stood outside their home to cheer for Willie as he crossed the sky. Then they called their daughter in Florida to let her know her big brother was on his way.

Willie McCool was an avid runner and once beat George W. Bush in a high school cross country race.

Willie McCool was an avid runner and once beat George W. Bush in a high school cross country race.

McCool went to his computer to watch the NASA feed and listen to the radio chatter. He heard talk of Columbia’s tire pressure gauges with null readings, and Alamogordo had lost visual and infrared contact. It was then that the accomplished test pilot knew something went horribly wrong.

“I saw the flight director’s face change and I was certain,” McCool says. “I turned to my wife and said ‘Willie’s gone.’”

A Military Family

Willie grew up in the military, the son of Colonel Audrey McCool, an Army dietitian, and a naval aviator father. The family had always accepted that life offered no guarantees.

“Willie was born Sept. 23, 1961, at Coronado Hospital in San Diego,” McCool says. “I was a combat Marine at the time, serving in Vietnam. When I finally returned, Willie was very much a mama’s boy. It took about six months, but I got his attention.”

Aside from a life on the move, McCool said his son had a typical childhood that included music lessons at an early age, beginning with violin, and later, guitar. He played tee-ball and pee-wee football, and helped his mother care for younger siblings, Kirstie and Shawn.

“While we were in Guam, Willie broke his ankle playing football and running was his rehab,” McCool says.  “It was as a runner for JFK High School there that he met Lani, a teammate who would later become his wife.”

“Long distance running became Willie’s concentration, his focus, his drive, initiative… everything that later made him a good astronaut and supreme Navy pilot,” McCool says.

After his first tour as a Naval Officer, McCool moved his family to Lubbock. While he spent 12-month deployments at sea, Audrey was on faculty at Texas Tech as director of the Coordinated Undergraduate Program in Dietetics while completing her doctorate, and Willie continued running for Coronado High School. In 1978, he won a cross-country race in Brownfield ahead of another runner, named George W. Bush.

“He was about five or six minutes ahead of him,” McCool says laughing. “Willie was just waiting for him at the finish line. There was a story in the sports section of the paper.”

An Overachiever

As a teen, Willie was an Eagle Scout. He also sang in the First United Methodist Church choir, and went on a concert tour of Eastern Europe. Willie loved working with children, so McCool figured his son would likely become a teacher, or perhaps a mathematician or politician. As it turned out, Willie’s running led to appointments at both the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy.

Barry McCool views a documentary about the Columbia Shuttle mission in his office.

Barry McCool views a documentary about the Columbia Shuttle mission in his office.

“It was cross-country coach Al Cantello, at the Naval Academy, who took Willie under his wing and became his mentor,” McCool says. “I was shocked. I had no idea he even applied. I was out on a ship, sitting in my flight gear getting ready to launch, when I found out in front of everybody that he had been accepted and appointed as a plebe to the Naval Academy Class of 1983.”

In his second year, Willie expressed a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot. Then, when he graduated second out of a class of more than a thousand, the Navy sent him to the University of Maryland, where he received his master's degree in computer science. Next, he attended flight training, graduated top of his class and received his choice of aircraft. The accolades continued when he graduated number one from test pilot school, with the number one thesis - a test and evaluation of the F-15 Eagle at Edwards Air Force Base.

“He was your typical overachiever, but he didn’t brag. Others did it for him,” McCool says. “He had a lot of assistance from his commanding officers. They encouraged him to go to test pilot school, and later they encouraged him to become an astronaut.”

Crew in Waiting

Willie was in the Class of 1994 at NASA, along with fellow Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark.

The crew of STS-107 was among the longest crews in training for a single mission, McCool said. They were bumped twice, first for the retrieval and repair of the Hubble telescope, and then again in favor of an emergency supply mission to the International Space Station.

Texas Tech alumnus Rick Husband served as Commander on the Columbia shuttle in 2003 and was good friends with Willie McCool.

Texas Tech alum Rick Husband served as commander on Columbia in 2003 and was good friends with Willie McCool.

“After two years together, they were a tight group,” McCool says. “While living in Houston, Willie and his family were sponsors for Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon and his wife, Rona. In fact, Willie’s kids babysat Ilan’s smaller children.”

In the weeks leading up to the launch, Willie flew out to visit his parents, both faculty members at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas.

“He spoke to one of my undergraduate classes, which actually ended up having more faculty in the room than students,” McCool says. “So the university knew him prior to him going into space.”

Fateful Flight

In April 1981, Columbia became the first orbiter to launch as part of NASA’s Space Transportation System. STS-107 was Columbia’s 28th mission, with several more scheduled to follow.

On Jan. 16, 2003, just 83 seconds after liftoff, a piece of foam the size of a briefcase broke off and struck Columbia’s wing. NASA officials did not consider the incident to be critical to the mission, and notified Commander Husband of this via email.

His response: “Roger. Copy.”

For 16 days, the crew conducted dozens of international scientific investigations. Then, 16 minutes before the scheduled landing and 38 miles above the earth, Columbia broke apart.

As Willie’s casualty assistance officer, McCool immediately left for Houston. And hours later, it was Audrey who, with incredible strength, held a news conference in front of their home.

Willie’s vision for future generations is illustrated in his memorial statue, sculpted by artist Eddie Dixon. It shows Willie as a man reaching for the stars, and sharing that inspiration with his younger self.

Willie’s vision for future generations is illustrated in his memorial statue, sculpted by artist Eddie Dixon. It shows Willie as a man reaching for the stars, and sharing that inspiration with his younger self.

“People could not understand how we could be so calm, but the truth is my family has always been prepared for loss,” McCool says. “We’re a military family. And when you catapult off an aircraft carrier, it’s never certain that you’ll come back.”

McCool owns copies of all STS-107 records and broadcasts, and has read every detail of the investigation. He acknowledges there was very little anyone could have done for the crew, and any kind of rescue scenario would have been a long shot at best. And any decision would have had to be made within the first 36 hours.

“The shuttle was not configured for extra-vehicular activity, because all that space was taken up by the more than 80 experiments,” McCool says. “And Columbia was not compatible hatch-wise to link up with the International Space Station.”

McCool said the best-case scenario would have been to scramble another shuttle in an attempt to orchestrate a rescue mission. Typically NASA requires at least six months to prepare for launch, and to cut it down to five days was unrealistic. An early decision to shut down some of Columbia’s power, comparable to what was done in the Apollo 13 mission, could have bought the crew up to 25 days to wait. However, McCool said rushing another shuttle could have proved disastrous for both crews.

Cockpit video show the minutes leading up to Columbia’s demise. The crew is seen making final preparations for re-entry, following through with obligations to experiments, but most importantly McCool says, they were laughing, joking and smiling for the camera.

At one point, Willie commented to the other astronauts about the orange glow outside the shuttle.

“You definitely don’t want to be outside now,” Husband replied.

“What, like we did before?” Kalpana Chawla said laughing.

“Good point,” Husband said.

The names of Willie's three sons, Chris, Sean and Cameron, are visible on the sleeve of the statue's flight suit.

The names of Willie's three sons, Chris, Sean and Cameron, are visible on the sleeve of the statue's flight suit.

Chawla, Husband and Mike P. Anderson had all been in space before. For Willie, Clark, Ramon and Dave Brown, this was their first and only flight. At age 41, Willie was the youngest.

Calm, Cool and Collected

Columbia’s debris field scattered across Texas into Lousiana. Search and recovery crews found Willie’s name badge from his flight suit, now with burned edges, and pieces of the cockpit. Willie’s instrument panel was recovered near Hemphill. Because it was folded over, the switches and gauges were remarkably intact and showed the pilot’s decisions during the flight’s final moments.

“The accident investigation board found that during Columbia’s final seconds, Willie had used his expertise as a test pilot and a Navy pilot to do everything he could to save the shuttle to keep it flying,” McCool says. “They found he had placed switches in positions that NASA had never ever done before, which bypassed systems that were burned up and failing. He fought to save the shuttle all the way down.”

McCool has no doubt that his son was calm, cool and controlled. He knows this because this was not the first time Willie faced crisis as a pilot. And McCool has a copy of that audio recording.

“There was an incident that occurred when he was flying an EA-6B Prowler, with the ops officer and commanding officer of the squadron in the back seat, and a female co-pilot,” McCool says. “At about 38,000 feet, an engine flamed out and the aircraft went into a spin. Up until that day, emergency procedures said to punch out, because the aircraft cannot be recovered. Even Grumman test pilots couldn’t recover in that scenario and punched out.

“After test pilot school, Willie went to the Strike Fighter Wing where he had developed a gauge for the EA-6B that helps you determine when you are in a spin and how to recover. On that recording, you can hear Willie say very calmly ‘break out the emergency procedures’ and go through the steps. While he’s doing that, the officers are yelling ‘eject, eject, eject!’ At 10,000 feet Willie said, ‘Skipper, keep your hand off the ejection handle, I’ve got the aircraft.’ And by 8,000 feet he recovered, restarted the engine, and they flew on. It had never been done before.

Willie's statue also has his wife's name, Lani, inscribed on his wedding ring.

Willie's statue also has his wife's name, Lani, inscribed on his wedding ring.

“It set him up to perform under stressful situations, and as an astronaut he did the same thing,” McCool says.

Imagine the Legacy

For his valiant effort to save Columbia, Willie was posthumously awarded the Space Congressional Medal of Honor. It was among many honors to come for Willie and his family, including memorials and schools named in his memory.

“When he was killed, UNLV gave him an honorary doctoral degree in science,” McCool says. “And the Nevada senate passed a bill to provide Willie’s wife and three sons with a free college education.”
Today, Willie’s inspiration lives on, in part through his choice in music. For the mission, he selected John Lennon’s “Imagine” as his wake-up song. And his message from space included the following quote, dated three days before his death:

“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.”

Willie spoke of children imagining the possibilities, through technology and experiments. He said that in his career, there was no greater experience than watching a child’s eyes light up from enthusiasm. It is now a legacy carried on by his family.

The plaque that accompanies the Willie McCool statue. Click photo to enlarge.

The plaque that accompanies the Willie McCool statue.

“I’ve had tremendous opportunities in public speaking, the people who need to be spoken to, such as elementary school kids,” McCool says. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you have the desire and the will and the determination, anything is within your grasp.”

McCool shares Texas Tech’s emphasis on STEM, especially letting girls know that it is okay to be good at math and science. McCool finds joy in answering intuitive questions from innocent minds, including “how do you go to the bathroom in space?”

“You have to be straight with them, because they are technologically astute,” McCool says laughing. “They’ll go online and find out the answers themselves.”

Willie’s vision for future generations is illustrated in a statue, by artist Eddie Dixon, located in South Lubbock. It shows Willie as a man reaching for the stars, and sharing that inspiration with his younger self. The names of his three sons, Cameron, Chris and Sean, are visible on the sleeve of Willie’s flight suit, and the name of Lani McCool, his widow, is inscribed on his wedding ring.

A companion statue of Husband is located at the airport in his hometown of Amarillo.

“Lubbock has grown as a community because of Willie and Rick,” McCool says. “It is extraordinary to have two heroes and their families with deep roots here. Both are inspirational people that children can look up to.”

The McCools returned to Lubbock in 2008. Willie’s mother, Audrey, assists McCool in his research which includes incorporating crisis management into hospitality education. He frequently uses the cockpit video in his teaching.

“The seven astronauts were all unique individuals. They were all heroes,” McCool says. “Willie was my little boy.”

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Remembering Rick Husband

Rick Husband

Husband graduated from Texas Tech with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering in 1980. He was a pilot on STS-96 Discovery (1999), a 10 day mission which included the first docking with the International Space Station. He returned to space as crew commander of STS-107 Columbia (2003), a 16-day science and research mission. Husband and six crewmates perished when Columbia broke apart during re-entry over Texas, 16 minutes before scheduled landing.

Among his many talents, Husband sang with the university choir. He even took the time to email the choir during his last mission to let them know he was exercising in space to their CD.

Willie McCool Memorial
Half-Marathon and 5k Run

Willie McCool Memorial Half-Marathon and 5k Run

The Willie McCool Memorial Half-Marathon and 5k Run is held annually in April, near the Silent Wings Museum.

Online registration is available at www.WestTexasEndurance.com.

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The college offers degrees in:

The college also offers graduate programs leading to the Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.

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Approximately 4,646 undergraduate and 1,040 graduate students pursue bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees offered through seven academic departments: civil, environmental and construction; chemical; computer science; electrical and computer; industrial, manufacturing and systems; mechanical; and petroleum.


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