Former Washington residents Michael Anderson and William McCool, and five fellow astronauts, die when space shuttle Columbia disintegrates during re-entry on February 1, 2003.

  • By Walt Crowley and Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 2/02/2003
  • Essay 5160

On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia breaks up over Texas during its return to Cape Kennedy from a 16-day scientific mission in orbit. All seven astronauts aboard perish, including pilot USN Commander William C. McCool (1961-2003), previously an Anacortes resident, and USAF Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson (1959-2003), a long-time Spokane resident and University of Washington graduate.

William McCool

William "Willie" McCool was born on September 23, 1961, in San Diego, California, and graduated from high school in Lubbock, Texas. His decision to pursue a career in military aviation was inspired by his father, a Vietnam veteran and retired Navy pilot. In 1983, McCool graduated second in his class at the United States Naval Academy, and then went on to get master's degrees in computer science and in aeronautical engineering, at the University of Maryland and the United State Naval Post-Graduate School respectively.

After completing flight training in 1986, McCool was assigned to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, where he trained on the EA-6B Prowler. Six years later he worked as a TA-4J and EA-6B pilot at Patuxent River, Maryland, before returning to Whidbey Island, where he continued to rise in the ranks. While serving at NAS Whidbey Island, McCool lived in Anacortes with his wife Lani and their sons Sean and Christopher Kasperbauer and Cameron McCool.

When McCool was assigned to NASA in 1996, he and his family moved to Houston. At the time, they maintained their home in Anacortes in hopes of returning at some point.

Michael Anderson

Born on December 25, 1959, in Plattsburgh, New York, Michael Anderson grew up following his father's Air Force career around the nation until the family arrived at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane. Anderson was 11 at the time. He graduated from Cheney High School in 1977 and took degrees in physics and astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1981. Anderson met his wife, Sandra Hawkins, in Spokane and they raised two daughters.

A member of the Air Force ROTC, Anderson immediately entered active service and quickly rose through the ranks to Lieutenant Colonel as an electronics expert and pilot with the Strategic Air Command. He later earned a Master of Science degree from Creighton University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, Nebraska. Anderson was accepted for NASA astronaut training in 1995, and made his first shuttle flight aboard the Endeavor in 1998 to carry supplies and new crew members to the former Soviet space station Mir. He and his colleagues spent nine days in orbit on that trip.

At the time of the accident, Anderson was living in Houston with his wife Sandra and their two daughters.

Space Shuttle's Roots in Washington

Built in 1981, the shuttle Columbia was the oldest of NASA's Space Transportation System (STS) fleet. The space plane was named specifically to honor the sailing ship Columbia Rediviva commanded by Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806) when he became the first Euro-American explorer to chart the "great river of the west" in 1792. Gray, a retired U.S. Navy officer employed by Boston traders, named the Columbia River for his vessel.

The ill-fated flight was Columbia's 28th trip to space and the 113th STS mission. The Columbia's loss was NASA's first fatal accident during re-entry in the entire 42-year history of its manned space program. A Washington native, Commander Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, died with six other astronauts when the shuttle Challenger exploded during ascent on January 28, 1986. Including the death of three Apollo astronauts in a 1967 launch-pad-test fire and the loss of four Soviet cosmonauts, a total of 21 people have died on space missions since Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.

The Boeing Company, formerly based in Seattle and still a major Washington employer, was deeply involved in the U.S. space program since the Apollo lunar landing program of the 1960s. In 1996, Boeing purchased Rockwell American, which had designed and built the first shuttles, and became a partner with Lockheed in subsequent STS production and operations. Boeing was also the prime contractor for the International Space Station, which relied on space shuttles for supplies and crew rotation.

Just 16 Minutes from Home

Columbia lifted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on January 16, 2003, under exceptional security due to fears that the participation of Israel Air Force Colonel Ilan Ramon (1954-2003), the first Israeli to travel into space, might inspire a terrorist attack (the subsequent accident did not result from any attack). During the launch, large slabs of ice and a segment of insulation foam sloughed off the shuttle's main fuel tank and struck the bottom side of its left wing. Such incidents were not unusual, and engineers deemed any damage insignificant at the time, but final telemetry from the descending shuttle indicated overheating in the left wing during its fiery re-entry.

The mission was the first purely scientific shuttle operation in three years, and the five men and two women aboard Columbia carried out an ambitious program of more than 80 separate experiments. The Columbia did not visit the International Space Station or launch any satellites while in orbit.


Columbia was just 16 minutes from landing in Florida when NASA suddenly lost contact with it at 9 a.m. At that moment, the craft was descending at 12,500 m.p.h. from an altitude of nearly 40 miles on its glide path across Texas. Some local observers reported hearing a large explosion and many watched and recorded multiple fireballs and contrails as fragments of the Columbia rained down along a 100-mile swath of eastern Texas and Louisiana. NASA immediately launched an investigation, which took months to complete.

In addition to Anderson, McCool, and Ramon, four other astronauts died: Mission Commander Rick Husband, and Mission Specialists Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, and David Brown.


Tracy Ellig "Michael Anderson Always Knew He Would Go to Space," Spokane Spokesman-Review, February 2, 2003; David Postman and Jonathan Martin, "Spokane Astronaut Lived Dream," The Seattle Times, February 2, 2003; David Bowermaster, "Boeing Closely Tied to Shuttle Program," Ibid.; NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) website accessed January 30, 2014 (; Elaine Wilson, "Anacortes Mourns a Shooting Star," Anacortes American, February 5, 2003, pp. A-1, A-6; "McCool Led a Life of Distinction as He Moved Up Through the Ranks," Anacortes American, February 5, 2003, pp. A-6, A-7.
Note: This essay was corrected on March 16, 2012. It was revised and expanded on January 30, 2014, to include Commander McCool, thanks to Elaine Walker (formerly Wilson) pointing out his Washington connection.

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