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Son recalls his astronaut father 20 years after his tragic death

Columbia Launch of STS-107 (NASA/Released)

William C. McCool, or as most people called him, “Willie,” was a father first and an astronaut second, said his oldest son.

At the time of his death in 2003, he was living an unassuming living in Anacortes with his wife Lani and their three sons.

Sean McCool, who still lives in Anacortes, said people wouldn’t have known his dad was an astronaut if it wasn’t for his death aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Most just knew him as an active community member.

“Our neighbors, at the time of the accident, they didn’t know he was an astronaut until his face was all over the TV,” Sean McCool said. “They knew he worked at NASA, but he was just really humble.”

Willie McCool and six other astronauts died Feb. 1, 2003, when the Columbia broke apart as it reentered the atmosphere.


Willie McCool was a test pilot in the Navy before being selected to work for NASA in 1996. He grew up in a military family and lived in several states before settling in Skagit County.

He first came to the area when he was stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Even while serving in the military, Willie McCool prioritized his kids and his community above all else. He coached his sons’ soccer teams and volunteered at their schools.

“His focus was on being a husband and being a dad,” Sean McCool said. “He just set a good example, and I know my friends and my brothers’ friends all really looked up to him. They liked hanging out because he was a fun dad.”

Sean McCool kept the family’s military tradition alive, joining the Marine Corps after his father’s death.

“Once I was in the military, I was able to appreciate his military accomplishments,” he said. “As a kid, that’s just your dad’s job.”

Sean McCool said his parents loved living in Anacortes and kept a home there because of the easygoing people and the community’s outdoor activities.

“Their neighbors were mostly retirees, and my parents were just very chill, laid back, not very social,” he said. “They just wanted to hang out and spend time with each other. These retirees had the right lifestyle.”

Willie McCool’s love of Anacortes was apparent even in his last days. He took a shrink-wrapped pinecone from the Anacortes Community Forest Lands with him into space.


Unlike other astronauts, Willie McCool didn’t dream as a kid of going to space.

“It wasn’t something he cared about. All of his peers were applying for NASA, so he applied,” Sean McCool said. “He never really dreamed about it, it was just one of those things.”

Even so, his experience as a naval aviator set him up to excel at NASA, and after two years of training he was qualified to pilot a space shuttle.

Piloting mission STS-107 would become Willie McCool’s first and last flight into space.

The seven-astronaut, nearly 16-day mission ended in disaster over Texas just 16 minutes before the shuttle was scheduled to land.

The purpose of the mission was to conduct research and work on technology development — something Willie McCool had experience with after earning a degree in computer science from the University of Maryland.

Sean McCool said his dad was always trying to learn something new.

“His pleasure reading was philosophy,” Sean McCool said. “Einstein, relativity, that kind of thing.”


Wednesday will mark 20 years since the Columbia disaster and Willie McCool’s death.

“I’m older than he was, and that helps put it in perspective, all the stuff he accomplished and how great of a dad he was,” Sean McCool said.

Sean McCool now has “a bunch of kids,” and said he tries his best to overcome the sadness he has felt for the past 20 years so he can to tell his children stories about their grandfather.

“I feel like it’d be a shame if something happened to me and they’re too sad or awkward to talk to their kids about me, so I’ve been putting in effort these past few years to deal with it,” he said.

Sean McCool said he hopes to keep his dad’s memory alive in Skagit County, and wants people to remember the family-focused community man his dad was.

“There are cultures where you have multiple deaths. There’s when your body dies, but also when no one remembers you. When there are no pictures of you and your name isn’t even spoken anymore,” he said.

Sean McCool referenced the spiritual and physical deaths portrayed in the Disney movie “Coco,” and said the film encourages him to keep sharing memories of his dad.

He said that the second version of death — when nobody speaks about or remembers the deceased — is something he never wants to let happen to his dad.

“Life is just memories,” he said.


(c) 2023 the Skagit Valley Herald

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