U.S. Navy Capt. David Brown was on his first trip to space as a mission specialist on the shuttle Columbia's final mission.
Brown, 46, a medical doctor, was working on numerous biological experiments on the flight.
"The great thing about being an astronaut is you kind of get to do a little bit of everything," Brown said in his official NASA interview before taking off.
"I mean, we're going to ride a rocket uphill," he said. "There's not that many people that get to do that. We're going to have the most amazing views, looking out the window, of the Earth. And at the same time, we get to participate in some fundamental research that will contribute to some medical understanding, some basic physical sciences understanding, and a better understanding of the Earth and the Earth's atmosphere."
He also took up a flag from Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., his alma mater, that another graduate had taken up Mount Everest.
"I'm going to get it a little bit higher up, but I won't have to walk as far to get it there," he said, on a separate occasion.
Didn’t Think He’d Become an Astronaut
Born April 16, 1956, in Arlington, Va., Brown received a degree in biology from the college of William and Mary in Virginia in 1978, and got his doctorate in medicine from Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1982.
In the NASA interview, Brown said he was asked as a child if he wanted to be an astronaut, but never really took the questions seriously.
"I just thought I was kind of a normal kid," he said. "I couldn't see a path, how a normal kid could ever get to be one of these people that I just couldn't identify with."
Although Brown had never traveled to space before his Columbia mission, he had logged thousands of flight hours in high-performance military aircraft, having flown the A-6E Intruder and F/A-18, and he is qualified as first pilot in NASA T-38 aircraft.
He was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in April 1996.
On the day he was to be launched into space, Brown left a final message on the telephone answering machine of his parents, Paul and Dorothy Brown of Washington, Va.
"Mom and Dad, it's Dave," he said on the tape. "It's launch morning I'm on the launch pad right outside the shuttle. It's just beautiful here, and I hope you have a safe trip back. We're going to have a great trip to space. I love you guys, and I'm about a couple of minutes from getting into the vehicle. Bye, bye."