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Friends of Arlington's

David M. Brown Planetarium

David M. Brown
NASA Astronaut, Naval Aviator, and APS Graduate

by Jennifer Lynn Bartlett — Nov. 24, 2022

David M. Brown, American astronaut who died during the failed re-entry of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, portrait taken 2001.
Photo Credit: NASA

Captain David McDowell Brown (USN) was born April 16, 1956, in Arlington, Virginia to Paul Douglas Brown (1990–2009) and Dorothy Ann (née Regan) Brown (1926–2017). His father served as judge in Arlington County for 35 years. David had one brother, Douglas.

Brown attended McKinley Elementary School and Swanson Middle School before graduating from Yorktown High School in 1974. A boy scout, he achieved the rank of Life Scout. He was also a high-school gymnast. He once remembered “growing up thinking that astronauts and their job was the coolest thing you could possibly do...” and also that “the other thing growing up is that I was always interested in science.”

After high school, Brown earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from the College of William and Mary in 1978. Throughout his undergraduate years, he was also a varsity gymnast. He even traveled one summer with Circus Kingdom, performing as an acrobat, unicyclist, and stilt walker.

During the summer of 1978, Brown obtained a private pilot license at the Williamsburg Airport. He recalled “I was interested in flying beginning at age 7, when a close family friend took me in his little airplane. And I remember looking at the wheel of the airplane as we rolled down the runway, because I wanted to remember the exact moment that I first went flying...”

Next, Brown studied medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School from which he graduated in 1982. He interned at the Medical University of South Carolina before joining the Navy.

After training as a flight surgeon, Brown became Director of Medical Services at Navy Branch Hospital in Adak, Alaska in 1984. His next assignment was with the Carrier Airwing Fifteen, deployed in the Pacific Ocean on the USS Carl Vinson. He was the Navy’s 1986 Operational Flight Surgeon of the Year. In 1988, he was the first flight surgeon selected for pilot training in 10 years.

Ranked first in his training class at Beeville, Texas, Brown became a naval aviator in 1990 and subsequently qualified to fly the A-6E Intruder, F-18 Hornet, and T-38 Talon. In 1991, he was a Strike Leader Attack Training Syllabus Instructor and a Contingency Cell Planning Officer at the Naval Strike Warfare Center in Fallon, Nevada. In 1992, he served on the USS Independence out of Japan. In 1995, he became the flight surgeon at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. He also served as president of the International Association of Military Flight Surgeon Pilots in 1996. He once explained, “As a physician and as a pilot, I think it lets me be a pretty good translator having one foot in the medical world and one foot in the flying world. Sometimes when the medical guys come in and speak medical stuff to the pilots, the pilots really don't know what they're saying.” Overall, he accumulated more than 2,700 flight hours most of which were in high performance military aircraft.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) denied Brown’s first application to become an astronaut. However, he persevered and, in 1996, NASA did select him for training at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He commented, “Although as a boy I had dreamed about going into space, I had completely forgotten about that until one day I received a call from an astronaut, who suggested that I should join the program.”

Brown completed two years of training to become a mission specialist. He supported payload development for the International Space Station (ISS). He was also a member of the astronaut team responsible for Space Shuttle cockpit setup, crew strap-in, and landing recovery. He said, “The great thing about being an astronaut is you kind of get to do a little bit of everything. I mean, we're going to ride a rocket uphill.”

Fellow astronaut and Naval aviator Captain William F. Readdy (USN ret) described Brown as “always smiling” and said, "He was always, as aviators say, at full after-burner. Supersonic. In a way, he embodied NASA's mission.” Lieutenant Commander Jeff Goldfinger (USN retired) called Brown “… the most humble overachiever we've all ever known.”

Brown’s only space flight was with the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) during which he spent 15 days, 22 hours, and 20 minutes in space. The Columbia launched on January 16, 2003, from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. During their Earth-orbiting science mission, the astronauts worked around the clock on 12-hour shifts to complete about 80 microgravity experiments. Describing his experience, he said, “The views of the Earth are really beautiful. If you've ever seen a space IMAX movie, that's really what it looks like. I wish I'd had more time just to sit and look out the window with a map, but our science program kept us very busy in the lab most of the time."

The STS-107 crewmembers strike a ‘flying’ pose for their traditional in-flight crew portrait in the SPACEHAB Research Double Module (RDM) aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. From the left (bottom row) are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, Rick D. Husband, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon. From the left (top row) are astronauts David M. Brown, William C. McCool, and Michael P. Anderson.
Photo Credit: NASA (public domain)   Picture recovered from a roll of film found in the STS-107 crash debris.

In addition to Brown, the STS-107 crew members were Rick Husband (commander), Willie McCool (pilot), Michael Anderson (payload commander), Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon.

Tragically, the entire crew, including Brown, died when the Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana during re-entry on February 1, 2003. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined that a falling piece foam from the shuttle’s external tank damaged its left wing a few seconds after launch. While re-entering the atmosphere, the resulting hole allowed atmospheric gasses to enter and destroy the spacecraft.

The Arlington Public Schools renamed their planetarium after Brown in 2008. Community activists founded The Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium (Friends), a 501(c)(3) charitable and educational organization, to advocate for the facility after the School Board threatened to close it. When the Planetarium reopened in 2012 after renovations, Readdy said, "This planetarium near where he grew up and was educated is perhaps the most fitting memorial to him. Because now, for generations to come, he'll continue to inspire the next generation of young explorers."

The non-profit Friends established an annual scholarship in Brown’s memory. The all-volunteer organization awarded its first grant in 2013 and has continued to make awards every year since then. The Arlington Community Foundation administers the funds and manages the application process on behalf of the Friends. The scholarship is funded by member dues and community donations.

Selected References

Boy Scouts of America. 2010. “Scouting and Space Exploration Fact Sheet.” Boy Scouts of America.

Brown, David M. 2006, David M. Brown Papers, NASM.2006.0013, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. last accessed 2021 November 27

Brown, David M. 2003, “David M. Brown Quotes,” Citatis (Final Level) last accessed 2021 November 27.

“David McDowell Brown (1956-2003).” 2003. Database. Find A Grave. February 1, 2003. last accessed 2022 November 24.

“Dorothy Ann Regan Brown (1926-2017).” 2017. Database. Find A Grave. April 12, 2017. last accessed 2022 November 24.

Howell, Elizabeth & Dobrijevic, Daisy. 2021, “Columbia Disaster: What happened and what NASA learned,” (New York, NY: Future US) last accessed 2021 November 27

“Judge Paul Douglas Brown (1919-2009).” 2018. Database. Find A Grave. November 5, 2018. last accessed 2022 November 24.,

NASA. 2003, “Biographical Data: David M. Brown (Captain, USN)” NASA (Houston, TX: JSC) last accessed 2021 November 27

Patterson, Robert. 2015, “David McDowell Brown: Captain, United States Navy,” Arlington National Cemetery Website (Long Island, NY: ANCWeb) last accessed 2021 November 27

Ryba, Jeanne. 2007, “Space Shuttle Mission Archives: STS-107,” NASA (Cape Canaveral, Fl: KSC) last accessed 2021 November 27

Spencer, Jason. 2012, “Updated: Arlington's David M. Brown Planetarium Reopens,” Clarendon-Courthouse-Rosslyn Local News (New York, NY: Patch Media) last accessed 2021 November 27

USNA. Undated. “Notable Graduates: William F. Readdy,” United States Naval Academy (Annapolis, MD: USNA) last accessed 2021 November 27

Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society. 2021, “Virginia Hall of Fame Spotlight: David M Brown,” Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society Online (Fredericksburg, VA: VAHS) last accessed 2021 November 27

Wilson, Teresa. 2018, “History of the Arlington Planetarium,” unpublished Google Doc, last accessed 2021 November 27

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