Beyond the Beautiful Earth

Astronaut David M. Brown was as down-to-earth as he was starry-eyed. He perished on the space shuttle Columbia.

David M. Brown (far left) with the Columbia crew (photo courtesy of NASA)

In January 2003, NASA engineer Ann Micklos and astronaut David M. Brown had ended their romantic relationship but remained good friends.

So much so that, before Brown was to board the space shuttle Columbia, he gave Micklos a present—the empty box for a Tourneau watch. His plan was to give her the actual timepiece after he’d carried it in space. 

As the world knows, a month later Columbia disintegrated on reentry, having been compromised by debris that hit a wing during its ascent. All seven astronauts on board perished, including Brown.

The tragedy was widely felt across the nation, but Arlington had lost a native son. 

Born on April 16, 1956, Brown was a graduate of McKinley Elementary, Swanson Middle and Yorktown High. As a teenager he was a straight-A student, earned the Boy Scout rank of Life Scout and became an accomplished gymnast at Yorktown, continuing the sport at the College of William & Mary.

He later completed medical school and became a flight surgeon for the U.S. Navy before pivoting to become a naval aviator, finishing first in his class. It wasn’t long before NASA beckoned, accepting Brown into astronaut training in 1996. The Columbia mission was his first and only spaceflight. 

1 16 2003

The Columbia upon liftoff (image courtesy of NASA)

On board the shuttle, Brown carried not just Micklos’s watch—which was eventually found amid the debris and given to her—but banners from Yorktown and William & Mary, and photos of family and friends.

He sent several group emails to his earthbound loved ones (a group that included his parents and college gymnastics coach) in dispatches ranging from the prosaic to the profound.

“We lose stuff all the time,” he wrote in his last email. “I’m kind of prone to this on Earth, but it’s much worse here as I can now put things on the walls and ceilings, too,” he said, his penchant for misplacing things made worse by the absence of gravity.

Twenty years later, Brown’s legacy is still felt in Arlington, whose planetarium was named for him in 2008. A memorial to the lost crew stands at Arlington National Cemetery, only steps from where Brown himself is laid to rest. In an obituary, The Washington Post called him “A Humble Guide to Life’s Adventures.” 

“David was an amazing combination of super-smart, athletic, warm and humble,” says Arthur Pearlstein, a classmate at Yorktown. “He was admired by everyone who knew him.”

In his final email, Brown made one last observation: “If I’d been born in space I know I would desire to visit the beautiful Earth more than I’ve ever yearned to visit space. It is a wonderful planet.”

He signed it “Dave,” and then he was gone.

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Categories: Local History