Columbia Astronauts Came To Coast Last Month

Three of the astronauts who died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster were actually on the Coast a month ago.

Astronauts frequently refuel their training jets at the FBO-AV Center on Hewes Avenue in Gulfport. Sometimes, astronauts may be at the center two or three times a week.

Ricky Pelez refuels aircraft there. Anytime an astronaut stops by, Ricky asks for a patch, with the names of the various astronaut crews on it. It's considered a real collectors item. Now, those patches line Ricky's locker. Including one he got just a month ago, from three Columbia crew members.

''We would talk say, 'Hey, how are you doing? Where are you heading to? Heading back home to Houston, or heading to the Cape for training,'" Pelez says.

Like everyone else, Pelez was shocked when he turned on the tv Saturday morning and saw what happened.

"Once they start showing the pictures and all, it hits you slowly but surely when you start realizing you did know them," Pelez added.

Leslie McGee also could not believe what she saw. She worked at what was then US Aviation in the late nineties and remembers meeting astronaut Michael Anderson.

"When they showed the pictures of all the pilots on the tv, I recognized Lt. Mike Anderson, because I knew he had been in here and we took a picture together before," she said.

Anderson also gave Leslie a patch from the first space mission he flew on. Leslie, remembers meeting many astronauts over the years. She describes them all as professional, friendly and courteous.

That's what Gulfport attorney and pilot Bill Mcdonough remembers about astronaut Bill Mccool, who was at the controls of Columbia.

"Great guy. Very dedicated, very dedicated to his profession. Top notch aviator. Interesting guy to talk to, as all of them are," said McDonough.

McDonough met the future astronaut when he was in the reserves in the 80's. McDonough has kept up with McCool's career as an astronaut ever since. Now, like the rest of the nation, he mourns the loss of some very brave souls.