William C. McCool was an experienced Navy pilot with more than 2,800 hours in flight. But two weeks into his first trip into space, the 41-year-old astronaut was bursting with amazement.
"There is so much more than what I ever expected," McCool told National Public Radio on Jan. 30 from the space shuttle Columbia. "It's beyond imagination, until you actually get up and see it and experience it and feel it."
McCool, 41, grew up building model airplanes in Lubbock, Texas, and followed in his father's footsteps as a naval aviator.
Navy Capt. Chuck Brady was among those at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station mourning McCool, who was a pilot there.
"He was a person who believed in the dream of a world where we acknowledge truth and goodness," said Brady, a doctor at the base hospital and a former astronaut who flew on Columbia in June 1996.
"It's a horrific day of tragedy. There is a loss beyond imagination for his family."
Known as "Cool Willie" in high school, he ran for the Coronado Mustangs and had taken a school spirit towel on the Columbia shuttle. He won a race in Brownfield, Texas, in 1979 in which one of his competitors was George W. Bush.
An Eagle Scout, he graduated second in his class in 1983 from the U.S. Naval Academy.
He went onto test pilot school, with assignments in Patuxent River, Md., and deployment aboard aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea. He became an astronaut in 1996. His mission aboard the Columbia was his first spaceflight.
A former NASA astronaut, Winston Scott, called McCool "my basketball buddy."
He was married with three sons aged 14 to 22. His mother, Audrey McCool, said Saturday her son's death should not stop the country from sending men and women into space.
"We want the space mission to go on," she said. "We don't want those people to have died in vain."
Copyright © 2003 The Associated Press