Lombard astronaut's first flight: a pretend trip to moon
Astronaut Dan Tani, who grew up in Lombard, was 8 years old when NASA put a man on the moon 50 years ago.
"I was doing what everybody else was doing," remembers Tani, who spent the summer of 1969 playing astronaut, watching TV coverage of the Apollo 11 buildup and eating space food sticks. On the historic day of July 20 of that year, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon's surface, Tani was visiting his cousins in Los Angeles and everybody was glued to the black-and-white TV coverage of the moment. It was inspiring.
"I found a photo of me and my cousins playing astronauts the night after. The best part is that my mom wrote on the back," Tani says, referring to a color photograph of two cousins and him in a make-believe spaceship covered by a sheet and bordered by the piano and piano bench.
"July 21, 1969. Jimmy, Anne and Danny pretending they are astronauts going to the moon," Rose Tani wrote in blue pen on the back of the photo.
And that's the moment that inspired Dan Tani to become an astronaut?
"No," says Tani, who, like most 8-year-old boys, quickly moved on to other interests. "Astronaut never popped into my head until I was working in the aerospace industry."
Tani, who graduated in 1979 from Glenbard East High School, went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and started working for Hughes Aircraft Corp. in El Segundo, California. He returned to MIT to get his master's degree in 1988. In jobs with a variety of aerospace companies, Tani worked closely with NASA and met astronauts.
"After I got over the celebrity thing, I thought that it would be a cool job," says Tani. "I always thought it was never going to happen. You fill out the application because everyone wants to be an astronaut."
NASA selected him in 1996 as an astronaut candidate, and he qualified for a flight after completing two years of training and evaluation. He was in the application pool three times before he was selected in 2001 to be a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which visited the International Space Station. During a 4-hour, 12-minute spacewalk, Tani wrapped thermal blankets around the station's solar power system.
He returned to space in 2007 as the flight engineer for the Space Shuttle Atlantis and spent 120 days working aboard the International Space Station, where he completed another five spacewalks, including the 100th spacewalk from the station with astronaut Peggy Whitson.
It was during that trip that Tani received word that his 90-year-old mother had been killed in an accident on Dec. 19.
During one of his spacewalks, he had told ground control, "I know my mom's watching on the internet in Chicago, so, 'Hi mom!' It's always fun to have your folks watch you."
The workload was designed to be light during Christmas, when the ground crew staff would be smaller. "I had just done a spacewalk the day before," Tani says. "It was after quiet time," Tani says of the radio call. He knew something bad had happened when he was put in contact with his wife, Jane. "My mother died in a train accident in Lombard while I was in space," he says.
It would be another two months before Tani landed back on Earth. Tani says he is grateful "my mother saw both my launches." But in the space program, death often hits close to home. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986, killing the seven crew members. Between Tani's first flight and his second, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, killing the seven-member crew.
"I just didn't read about it in books. I've lost friends," Tani says, noting that he was mindful of that when his crew hit the 73-second point of liftoff and the re-entry speed of Mach 19. "Think of it as when you're driving on the road and see those little white crosses and know somebody lost their life there."
That's why he admires Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who took on the moon challenge after astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White II and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire during preflight testing on Jan. 27, 1967. No one knew for certain if NASA could land men on the moon and bring them home safely.
"That was some groundbreaking stuff," Tani says, who notes that he thinks of the Apollo astronauts whenever he looks at the moon. "What a different mission that would be. How gutsy those Apollo astronauts were."
After spending 132 days in space and completing nearly 40 hours of work during his six spacewalks, Tani left NASA in 2012 to become vice president of mission and cargo operations of an aerospace company. He later worked as a teacher at the American School in Japan, which was "harder than being an astronaut," he says.
Now, Tani works as director of foundation grants for the United States-Japan Foundation, a not-for-profit located in New York City and dedicated to building relationships between people of both nations. His father, Henry, who died when Tani was 5, and his mother, Rose, both were born in the United States and were interned at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah during our nation's mandatory evacuation of people of Japanese descendants during World War II.
"It's a real point of pride for me that we survived that black mark in history," says Tani, who remains proud to have been an employee of a government that admitted its mistake and made an effort to compensate the victims. He and his wife are parents to daughters Keiko, 14, and Lily, 13, and a son John, 10. But all he has to do is look up to be reminded of the role he played in America's space history.
"I've got friends up in the Space Station, and I look up at it every couple of weeks," Tani says. "I have to pinch myself and think that I was up there."