In an e-mail from space sent to his parents in Virginia, Capt. David M. Brown captured the vexing contradictions of life on Earth.
"The views of earth are really beautiful. . . . My most moving moment was reading a letter [Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon] brought from the Holocaust survivor talking about his 7-year-old daughter who did not survive. I was stunned such a beautiful planet could harbor such bad things. . . . I will make one more observation. If I'd been born in space I would desire to visit the beautiful Earth more than I ever yearned to visit space. It's a wonderful planet. Dave."
They would be the last words that Paul Brown, 83, and Dorothy Brown, 77, would receive from their 46-year-old son, an Arlington County native who was one of seven astronauts to perish in the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
The Westover section of Arlington, where Brown grew up, is a post-World War II neighborhood of middle-class homes set on quarter-acre lots. It is a quiet subdivision where parents push strollers in the middle of the street because cars roll through only occasionally.
Brown's parents remembered their quiet but confident son, whose passion for flying began early.
"David as a young boy loved to fly kites -- couldn't get enough of the kites," his mother said. "He chased dragonflies with nets. I made him those nets."
Although he knew he wanted to be a doctor, Brown was hit with the flying bug for good when he was 13 and friends took him up in their small, private airplane.
"He was always interested in flying," said Steve Wilbur, 46, his best friend from elementary school through high school. "He had a telescope, and we'd go out and look at the stars in the back yard. He always liked airplanes. We'd make model planes and fly them at the elementary school."
Brown accomplished everything he set out to do but maintained an easygoing nature. "He wanted to be on the football team -- he did it," Wilbur said. "He was interested in amateur radio -- he got his ham license. He was always very focused but very good-natured."
After graduating from Arlington's Yorktown High School in 1974, he went to the College of William and Mary, where he graduated in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in biology. He received a medical degree in 1982 from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk.
But his other passion still tugged. "At William and Mary, he worked two jobs to take flying lessons," his mother said.
Apart from a keen, analytical mind, there was a whimsical side to Brown. While in college, where he was a star gymnast, he joined the Circus Kingdom for a summer; he was an acrobat, a stilt-walker and a seven-foot unicyclist.
"He was very coordinated. He was good at anything he tried . . . except for the violin," his mother said.
After an internship at the Medical University of South Carolina, Brown joined the Navy. He served as a flight surgeon and, in 1988, was chosen for pilot training. He joined NASA in 1996 and became eligible for flight assignments as a mission specialist.
It was what he always wanted to be. Dorothy Brown said she was concerned about the risks of flying, but she knew nothing could stop him.
"It's what he desperately wanted to do -- and you couldn't take that away from him. He would have been devastated," she said.
Her son had a conversation at Christmas with his brother Doug, who asked what would happen if something went wrong in space. "Well, this program will go on," Dorothy Brown recalled her son saying.
Brown was readily aware of the risks in space, said William Walker, a spokesman for William and Mary. In a speech to students last September, Brown told them that one of 200 to 300 launches will end with the loss of crew and aircraft. But he encouraged the young people to have "a big vision, accept the risks and be persistent in pursuit of goals."
"He grabbed life like no one I've ever seen," said Walker, who had interviewed Brown several times.
Though he never married, Dorothy Brown said, Brown never had a problem attracting women. "He was very quiet, very handsome," she said. "Girls liked that."
Another of his e-mails from space showed him holding a picture of the entire Brown family. It read: "The Browns in Space." His mother said he seemed to be in much better spirits after dealing with the death of his 14-year-old golden Labrador retriever, Duggins, who had to be put to sleep a few weeks before the shuttle launch.
The Browns were watching the shuttle's reentry from their living room in Washington, Va., when they heard the announcer say that NASA had lost contact with the shuttle.
"We were not sure what that meant," Dorothy Brown said, her voice trembling. "We thought it was just some communications glitch."
But then the calls, increasingly frequent, started coming from Florida. Their son Doug told them that NASA was moving families and friends to another building.
"That's when we knew," she said quietly.
Dorothy Brown's most vivid memory is of the last day she saw her son before the launch.
"I said, 'Dave, I'll be thinking of you,' " she said. "He gave me a great big kiss on the cheek. That's what I'll always remember."
The astronaut did not forget his early life in Virginia's schools. For the space flight, he took along the flags of William and Mary and of Yorktown High School.
In the 1974 Grenadier, the Yorktown High School yearbook, a black-and-white photo captures the essence of David Brown at a gymnastics competition. He has bounded off a springboard, about to vault over a horse, when the camera caught him in midair. He is parallel to the ground; he appears to be flying.