Commander William C. McCool, USN, gave his life on 1 February 2003 while piloting Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-107. Foam from the external fuel tank broke off and struck the shuttle’s left-wing during take-off. The seemingly minor damage led to the shuttle’s disintegration during reentry more than two weeks later. McCool has several schools, tracks, parks, and buildings named in his honor. There are even memorials to him spread across the solar system. There is Asteroid 51829 Williemccool and McCool hill on Mars. One of the most personal memorials, however, resides on the U.S. Naval Academy Cross Country Course in Annapolis, Maryland. The stone tablet sits just behind the 15th tee of the Naval Academy Golf Course. There’s a small gravel path off Greenbury Point Road near the intersection with Kinkaid Road that leads up the hill to the memorial. The location may seem odd and out of the way to most, but it bears great significance.
As a midshipman, McCool was a stellar student—he graduated second in the class of 1983. McCool went on to be an EA-6B Prowler pilot and test pilot before he entered NASA’s astronaut program 1996. While at the Naval Academy, he was also an unexpectedly successful cross country and track and field athlete. There were many faster midshipmen before and after him, but with hard work and determination he proved he had a place on the team. By his first-class (senior) year, members of the Navy Cross Country team elected him their team captain.
During that year’s Navy Invite, on 2 October 1982, McCool ran his fastest time on the home course. The meet was stacked more than usual that year, with nationally ranked Georgetown and Syracuse in attendance. Syracuse’s Jim O’Connell was already a four-time All-American (earning two more before he graduated). This was the type of racing Navy Cross Country Head Coach Al Cantello loved. He hated small meets with easy wins. He’d rather his team lost miserably giving everything against the best in the nation (although, he certainly preferred that it won). O’Connell outclassed everyone at the starting line that morning, but McCool made him earn a win.
McCool ran 24:27 that day. That’s 4:53 per mile over eight hilly kilometers. It was one of the fastest times run by a midshipman on the course at the time. O’Connell won, but he had to set a new course record to do it. His record stood for almost 25 years. It took future LA and Boston marathon champion Wesley Korir to beat it in 2007.
McCool’s memorial on the course was dedicated on 2 December 2007. Dozens of alumni from the team, NASA astronauts, and McCool’s family attended. Jim O’Connell was even there. On the side facing the road, the memorial has a bronze image of McCool racing on the course and a short biography. It also includes a message he gave during Columbia’s crew wake-up on 29 January 2003: “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.” The Naval Academy had hosted the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Conference the week before and the Superintendent, Vice Admiral Jeffrey Fowler, commented on the timeliness of McCool’s world vision.
The opposite side of the memorial bears the STS-107 mission patch and in large bold letters, “16 MINUTES FROM HOME.” The Columbia broke apart on re-entry 16 minutes before the scheduled landing at 0915 on 1 February 2003. When NASA investigators inspected the Columbia’s surviving equipment, they found that McCool’s R-2 instrument panel indicated it had been operated in shuttle’s final moments. As the shuttle’s pilot, McCool continued to maneuver the Columbia as it disintegrated around him. The memorial was erected where McCool would have been 8:27 into his fastest race—sixteen minutes from the finish of the 1982 race when he wouldn’t give in.
For those racing the course, the monument sits just short of 1¾ miles into the almost five-mile course. After a lonely stretch up a steep hill named Big Bertha and over a series of rolling hills known as the roller coaster, there is no better source of inspiration than coming up the next hill with “16 MINUTES FROM HOME” staring at you, asking if you can do what Willie did.