The priest who baptized space shuttle pilot Willie McCool, and who granted him absolution shortly before his ship Columbia lifted off into space, said the astronaut died as he lived – as a hero.
Interviewed Monday, two days after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1 after re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, Father John Barry said of the seven astronauts aboard, "They’re heroes, whether they died doing it, or lived doing it."
The pastor of Our Lady’s Church at Medley’s Neck, located in Leonardtown in Southern Maryland, said, "They’re adventurers on the frontier of life. They’re out there on the edge of exploration. People on the frontier, pushing the limits, that (death) is always a possibility."
In the early 1990s, Father Barry had a chance meeting with the future astronaut, as the priest was jogging and McCool, a distance runner, stopped to chat with him. McCool, who would go on to become a Navy commander, was working as a test pilot at the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station, and Father Barry was then a young associate priest at St. Aloysius Parish in Leonardtown.
"He said he’d been contemplating becoming Catholic for awhile. He said his family was Catholic – his wife was Catholic and their three kids were being raised Catholic, so (he felt) it was about time he joined them," the priest remembered.
Father Barry said he instructed McCool in the faith at the parish and oftentimes at the pilot’s family home at the naval base, where the F-18 he flew was parked in the hangar across the street. The pilot, who graduated second in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, approached his instruction with enthusiasm. "He was moving at light speed, taking it all in quickly," the priest recalled, saying that McCool, already a good, disciplined man from his upbringing and years in the service, recognized that he needed more in his life, that he could be a better husband and father "by putting his life more into Christ’s hands."
The priest said McCool was "awakening to more spiritual strength," and in 1993, he was baptized, confirmed and received First Eucharist in the Catholic faith.
McCool’s wife, Lani, is a prayerful woman, Father Barry said. "She played the harp. That was a way of praying for her. She would talk a lot with her sons (Sean, Christopher and Cameron) about God... She felt that Willie becoming one with them in the Catholic faith would complete things, really bring them together. She felt the need for God to protect them and watch over them."
The priest remained friendly with the close-knit family, visiting their home for meals and joining them in cheering at the sons’ baseball games. In 1996, he visited the family in Washington state, the year when McCool was accepted into the astronaut program. "He took it all to prayer with his wife and family," Father Barry remembered. "They prayed, (seeking) if this was God’s will."
Then this January, in the week of the Columbia’s launch, the priest was invited to join McCool’s family as a guest of the space shuttle crew. That Tuesday evening, they gathered at a beach house near the Cape Canaveral lift-off site for a traditional farewell dinner, a barbecue for the astronauts, their families and close friends. The priest said he was struck by how selfless all the astronauts seemed, how humbled they were by the honor of being chosen to fly into space.
"The NASA community is like that. They showed such family spirit," he said, noting that astronauts’ family members had come together from as far away as India and Israel and from throughout the United States. "They were all just a family." The crew included Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and astronaut Kalpana Chawla, an immigrant from India.
Later that evening, the priest prayed over McCool and gave him absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That was the last time he saw him in person. The next day, family members and friends toured the space center, and on Thursday morning, they were positioned in stands in a wildlife area, in sight of birds overhead and alligators in the water, as they watched the space shuttle blast off. Father Barry said the lift-off was an awesome sight, as the shuttle rocketed skyward.
At that moment, the priest stood beside McCool’s parents, and watched as proud tears rolled down their faces. When an official told the families that the space shuttle was safely progressing toward space, Barry McCool, the astronaut’s father, yelled out, "That’s my boy up there!"
And the priest thought to himself how in some ways this was the second launch in McCool’s life, how the astronaut’s conversion to the faith was in itself a launch heavenward. In an e-mail written shortly afterward, the priest wrote how McCool had radiated an inner joy when becoming Catholic. "I’m sure his spirit will be soaring aboard the Columbia shuttle, and experiencing God’s creation (and) glory in a personal manner."
The priest envisioned he could see McCool’s trademark grin as he piloted the shuttle. Then, in the next 16 days, he followed his friend’s progress daily on the NASA television channel, and there he was, "grinning from ear to ear. He was having the time of his life." --Team Capodanno
I receive your newsletter each month and I have been our Catholic Lay Leader on USS Farragut DDG-99 for 2 years now. Before my last deployment I was sent some supplies as requested in this form and they came in handy for our time at sea! We are coming up on our next deployment and are looking for more supplies for the Catholics on board the ship. Thanks for your help! God bless!
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