Today we sang "Eternal Father, Strong to Save". We sing it after every service at the Chapel on the Yard, but today it felt more appropriate.
Eternal Father, Strong to Save,
whose arm hath bound the restless wave;
who biddest the mighty ocean deep
its own appointed limits keep.
Hear us when we cry to Thee
for those in peril upon the sea!
Commander William P. McCool was on board STS-107 when it exploded approximately 20 minutes from landing, over the plains of Northern Texas and Lousiana. He is survived by his wife and three children. He was 41.
O Spirit, Whom the Father send
To spread abroad the Firmament;
O wind of heaven, by Thy Might,
Save all who dare the eagle's flight;
And keep them by Thy watchful care
From every peril in the air.
Commander McCool was inducted into the Naval Academy class of 1983 where he managed to hold his own, graduating second of a class of 1,083. At the Naval Academy, he ran track and cross-country, serving as captain of the latter his final year at the Academy. He earned his Bachelor's of Science in Applied Sciences and service-selected naval aviation; a natural decision for a boy who grew up enjoying building model aircraft and the son of an naval aviator and marine. After primary flight training, he returned to school to earn his Master's Degree in Computer Science from the University of Maryland in 1985. Following a distinguished career with airborne electronic warfare squadrons as a naval aviator with 2,800 hours of flight time in 24 aircraft, he attended Test Pilot School and also earned his third degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1992.
Selected as an astronaut by NASA in 1996, he was onboard his first spaceflight and shuttle mission, serving as head of the blue team (one of two shifts) and pilot. During his eulogy, one of his classmates remarked that as proud of his job as an astronaut Commander McCool might have been, he was one of the most humble people he had ever met. "Willie would never brag about being an astronaut, instead, when asked what he did for a living, he'd always say 'I'm in the Navy. I do lots of things: mostly what they tell me to do.'"
Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky,
Be with them always in the air,
In dark'ning storms or sunlight fair.
O, Hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air.
On a more personal note, I had known him, if only in passing. As a graduate of the Computer Science department (where I work), he was a legend. A lot of the professors remember teaching him. He had the kind of personality everyone remembers. That isn't what qualified him as one of my personal heroes though. He was my hero because even in the face of danger, he had a sense of humor and a "let's get to it" attitude. My father knew him as well. As an engineer for Lockheed-Martin, dad received the opportunity to travel to Houston to see the new computers he had designed in action. At that point, Commander McCool was not only training to fly the Columbia, but as a test pilot, was also involved with redesigning the cockpit to be more pilot-friendly. He was also selected to be my father's tour guide. Now, my father is a pilot. He is also retired from the Air Force after time during Vietnam with many decorations, including the Presidential Unit Citation with V for Valor in Combat. Somehow Commander McCool found out both of these facts. However, dad was not a pilot for the Air Force in Vietnam, nor decorated for his flying abilities. Apparently, Commander McCool did not know this when he asked the simulator directors to simulate a main engine shutdown at liftoff.
Suddenly confronted by a series of red lights and klaxxon horns, my dad started to panic.
"What's going on!?"
"Oh, main engine shutdown. Either you fly the plane at a new trajectory, or we burn up, or we skip off the atmosphere and miss orbit. I told the directors you were a pilot and to simulate an emergency. Here's the slide rule!"
My dad was shocked, and quite frankly, had no idea how the slide ruler was going to be useful.
"I'm just a Cessna pilot! I don't know what you're talking about!"
All Commander McCool did was shrug and say "Bummer. Guess I'm going to have to teach you how to do this in a hurry then, huh?" Apparently he managed to help my dad "save" the Shuttle, getting the orbiter into a safe flight path in order to allow an emergency landing. The picture with both of them in flight suits, thumbs raised and mile-wide smiles reminds me a shot right out of The Right Stuff. I have no doubt in my mind that Commander McCool had that mile-wide grin on his face, even as he was trying to save the shuttle. It was his personal idiom.
Eternal Father, King of birth,
Who didst create the heaven and earth,
And bid the planets and the sun
Their own appointed orbits run;
O hear us when we seek Thy grace
For those who soar through outer space.
I'm not the only one who will miss him. "One hundred years from now, Willie will be remembered in his class. You can't say that about a lot of midshipmen. He was the kind of guy who you just knew was gonna be fun to watch. Willie was a wonderful guy. Not only a cool name, but a cool guy," said Mike Ashford, owner of McGarvey's, a popular Annapolis restaurant which Commander McCool used to frequent.
Within hours of the tragedy, the Academy had gone into a state of mourning. 51 graduates have gone onto become astronauts, more than any other college. One might think that with so many astronauts, we'd be prepared for the possibility of losing one. "He truly exemplified the spirit and dedication of an American patriot. He was a well-respected member of the Naval Academy family and we are all very proud of his significant achievements. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and many friends at this difficult time." emoted Vice Admiral Richard J. Naughton, Naval Academy Superintendent. The delivery might have been polished, but at Commander McCool's memorial service, Vice Admiral Naughton was crying while clutching a picture.
"In the words of the prophet Isaiah, 'Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.' The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home." said President Bush.
And when at length her course is run,
Her work for home and country done,
Of all the souls that in her sailed
Let not one life in thee have failed;
But hear from heaven our sailor's cry,
And grant eternal life on high!
"He did not die in vain. This will go on -- the space program go on. They felt it would have benefits for humanity. It would be a travesty if they didn't continue, because it helps not just us but all of humanity," said Audrey McCool, his mother. Shortly after the tragedy, the critics of the space program were calling for a cessation of spaceflight. I don't know how to reply beyond her words: we lost a piece of multi-billion dollar equipment, and more importantly, we lost seven lives. But in Commander McCool's honor, I can only hope we did not lose the will to continue to fly into space.