Beasley rarely paid attention to anything so close to Earth. He managed Caltech's millimeter astronomy array and, in his spare time, studied the motion of galaxies through the deep cosmos.
Two local photographers, however, had convinced him that the sight of the shuttle's predawn reentry over Northern California would be especially memorable.
Just before 6 a.m., Columbia slashed the dark from horizon to horizon. Staccato flashes punctuated its passage.
The fiery pink streak left the afterglow of a holiday sparkler. It burned in Beasley's eyes long after the shuttle itself, traveling at 4 miles per second 40 miles overhead, vanished in the eastern haze.
The burly Australian astronomer could not make sense of the bright pulses of light that trailed in Columbia's wake.
His mother-in-law was puzzled too.
They might be tiles, Beasley told her. I think the shuttle normally sheds some tiles on reentry, he said. He didn't give it a second thought.
The stargazer ducked into the warm kitchen, ate a piece of toast with peanut butter, then drove to the observatory.
He had no inkling how obsessed he would become with the streak of light he had just witnessed.
One Columbia crew member didn't wear a space helmet, so smooth was the descent.
Too elated to bother, or perhaps too confident, three of them did not put on their orange pressure-suit gloves.
On the flight deck, shuttle commander Rick Husband, 45, chugged down three plastic flagons of saline solution to keep from getting lightheaded, a common side effect of reentry. It tasted slightly like seawater.
Pilot William McCool, 41, pored over a pre-landing checklist. Crew members Kalpana Chawla, 41, and Laurel Clark, 41, sitting behind him, watched raptly as superheated gases licked across the cabin windows.
Seated back in the mid-deck area, Michael Anderson, 43, David Brown, 46, and Ilan Ramon, 48, could not see what lay ahead.
The seven men and women were plunging out of orbit into the atmosphere over the South Pacific on the last leg of a journey that 22 years of repetition had turned into a NASA routine.
For 16 days, they had circled Earth. Now they could return.
The shock of Columbia's passage was ripping apart molecules of the thickening air. Atoms blazed furiously. Faster than a bullet, the shuttle hurtled down a tunnel of excited particles, glowing within a glow, like a firefly trapped inside a fiery neon tube.
"It looks like a blast furnace," Husband told his crew in cabin talk captured on Clark's video camera.
Gravity gently took hold inside the spacecraft. A notecard floated to the floor. At 24 times the speed of sound and 250,000 feet over Hawaii, the shuttle encountered temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the light danced even harder outside.
"It's really getting bright," McCool exclaimed.
Seething plumes of ionized gas -- orange and yellow, reddish purple and pink -- swirled around the capsule.
"You definitely do not want to be outside now," Husband replied.
They chuckled. Columbia automatically began banking to the right. The Earth below swung into view. Home.
In Houston, lead flight director Leroy Cain watched a glowing line track Columbia's reentry across a world map covering one wall in the windowless auditorium of Mission Control. This was his 12th mission.
Abruptly, instrument readings from four temperature sensors aboard Columbia flickered off.
No one in the five rows of systems engineers in front of Cain could tell him why.
To all appearances, the spacecraft was flying normally northeast of Yosemite, heading toward a routine landing in Florida.
Cain double-checked. "Everything look good to you?" he asked the engineer monitoring guidance and control.
"I don't see anything out of the ordinary," came the reply. The Johnson Space Center tape recorders and video cameras preserved every word.
Five minutes later, pressure readings from two of Columbia's tires ceased. The shuttle flew on, approaching Dallas and Fort Worth, slowing to 21 times the speed of sound.
Cain's thoughts raced down a dozen avenues of contingency and response, as he had practiced in so many mission simulations. Each was a dead end.
Ninety seconds passed.
"Columbia, [this is] Houston," radioed Marine Lt. Col. Charles Hobaugh, 42, the astronaut in charge of Mission Control's communications with the shuttle crew. "We see your tire pressure messages, and we did not copy your last call."
Aboard Columbia, shuttle commander Husband keyed the microphone switch. "Roger," he replied. "Uh, buh .... "
His transmission ended mid-word.
With all its electronic senses, NASA strained for a telling signal. Frantically, engineers paged deeper into thick manuals of procedures. They sought to restore communication.
"Columbia? Houston. UHF comm check," Hobaugh radioed, trying to raise the crew.
"Columbia? Houston. UHF comm check," he repeated.
"Columbia? Houston. UHF comm check."
The minutes dragged. Mission Control, cut off from any sensation of the world beyond its unresponsive computer monitors, was paralyzed as if by a stroke.
Sixteen minutes after the first sensors faltered, a cellphone rang. Someone watching television at home had called a NASA official in the control room, who in turn murmured the news to the flight director.
Columbia had burst into a confetti of debris.
Torn into thousands of pieces, it was falling with a rolling rumble of sonic booms across Texas and Louisiana. From the ground, the disintegrating spacecraft was a winter thunderstorm of wreckage.
Quietly, Cain worked his jaw. He wiped a hand across his face. He couldn't help it: A single tear slid down his cheek.
The shuttle team was no longer running a mission.
They were witnesses now.
Their statements would be taken. Their notes, logs and computer data would be impounded. There would be questions and a fever for answers.
All their decisions would be suspect.
"Lock the doors," Cain ordered.