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For Astronaut, a Frustrating Wait

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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

CHICAGO -- Astronaut Daniel Tani had hoped to spend Christmas with his family, but that was before fuel tank problems scrapped two scheduled December launches of the space shuttle Atlantis, which would have taken him home from the international space station. Now the launch delay -- until late January or February, NASA announced on Thursday -- has become increasingly frustrating.

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Tani's mother, Rose, was killed Dec. 19 at a railroad crossing in Lombard, Ill., when, ignoring a warning barrier, she drove around a school bus from Tani's high school alma mater and into the path of an oncoming freight train.

NASA has said this makes Tani the first American to lose a close family member while in space. He missed his mother's funeral, and the delays of the shuttle launch mean more time away from his grieving family. A Russian rescue vehicle lodged at the space station can take astronauts back to Earth, but that is to be used only in the case of extreme technical difficulties or if astronauts' lives are in danger.

"They recognize when they go on a long-duration flight what their ride home is," said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring. Herring said the Atlantis mission, which will launch Jan. 24 at the earliest, and more likely in February, will take 13 days.

Tani was notified of his mother's death by a phone call from NASA officials, who ask crew members in advance whether they want to be notified of such occurrences while in space. Tani videotaped a message played at his mother's memorial service Dec. 23 in the packed First Church of Lombard United Church of Christ, where he attended services growing up.

Tani's siblings said he is frustrated by the delay and is eager to see his family, but has turned to his love of space to help deal with grief. He has continued his daily work, which includes routine maintenance, exercise and preparing for a spacewalk this month. His brother Dick Tani, 65, a retired actuary in the Chicago area, said Daniel was on the phone with family members for hours on the day Rose died. Though civilians cannot call him, Tani can make calls from the space station via satellite.

"I'm sure he wishes he could come home, but he knows he has work to do up there, and he loves being in space," said brother Steven Tani, 62, a strategic consultant in Palo Alto, Calif. "Given the situation is completely out of his power, I'm sure he's doing good work and making the most of it."

In a Dec. 21 statement, Daniel Tani said: "Living on the space station means that I experience all aspects of life -- be they joyous or tragic -- while circling the Earth without a convenient way to return. Of course, I was aware of this situation before my mission."

Tani joined the astronaut program in 1996 and was a member of a 12-day space shuttle mission in 2001 to deliver a new crew and supplies to the space station and return the previous team to Earth. His mother kept a shrine of memorabilia and articles about him in her Lombard home, blocks from Glenbard East High School, which has a display honoring Tani, a 1979 graduate.

Rose Tani's children and acquaintances said the 90-year-old woman was in excellent health mentally and physically, and they called her death untimely. She was born to Japanese parents in Northern California; later, she and her husband and oldest son were sent to internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. Her husband died when Daniel was a young child.

Friends say the drive that made Daniel Tani a successful mechanical engineer and astronaut is not surprising, given his mother's independent and determined streak. Until her death, Rose Tani volunteered for the overnight shift cooking breakfast and cleaning for her church's program for the homeless, worked constantly in her garden and made raspberry jam for neighbors. She went whitewater rafting with her children on her 80th birthday and traveled to Russia and China through the Elderhostel program.

About 50 family members from the United States, Japan and Ireland, where Daniel Tani's wife was born, traveled to Cape Canaveral to watch the Oct. 23 launch of the space shuttle Discovery, which carried Tani to the space station. Though astronauts are largely isolated in the days leading up to a launch, Tani had lunch with his mother a few days before takeoff.

"Dan frequently told folks that Rose was his hero," said the Rev. Robert Hatfield, senior minister at the First Church of Lombard. "After being hauled off to the internment camps as a young mother, she just decided bitterness was not an option. Dan said how ironic it was that the same government who put his parents and big brother in an internment camp is the same government giving him the opportunity to travel into space."


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