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Daniel Tani: Inspiration in Orbit


            The dream of serving their country as an astronaut is one shared by many children growing up in the Midwestern U.S., but very few actually see it become reality.  Daniel Tani, whose parents were once interned in a World War II relocation camp, is one of that small and proud group.  The selection process used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to recruit astronauts is notoriously rigorous and highly exclusive, and to date only two Japanese-Americans have made the cut.  The first was Ellison Onizuka, who in 1985 also became the first Asian-American in space, and the second was Tani, who flew his first mission in 2001.


     But the opportunity for Tani to serve on that shuttle flight, STS-108 Endeavour, came only after much training on top of a solid educational background.  In fact, it was over five years after his initial selection as an astronaut candidate by NASA before Tani actually made it into space.  In the meantime, he worked in crew support in the Astronaut Office Computer Support and Extra-Vehicular Activity Branches. Prior to joining NASA, Tani graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) mechanical engineering program.  Then he gained engineering, design, and mission operations experience while working for Hughes Aircraft Corporation and Orbital Sciences Corporation.  Tani tells student groups to whom he speaks that the requirements to become an astronaut are math and science education, strong communications ability, and a generous dose of luck.


     Tani’s next opportunity to go into space was nearly another six years in the making.  His second flight mission was aboard STS-120 Discovery/ISS Expedition 16 in 2007, which turned out to be an extended tour of nearly four months aboard the International Space Station.  It was during this mission that Tani added substantial hours to his Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) tally, ending the tour with a grand total of over 39 hours in six separate spacewalks, among them the 100th walk on the Space Station.  Sadly, Tani was still on this mission when he was informed of his mother’s death in an auto-train accident, giving him the unfortunate distinction of being the first American to lose a close family member while in space.  Due to mechanical difficulties which delayed his scheduled return flight by nearly two months, Tani was unable to attend his mother’s funeral but issued a statement acknowledging that this type of situation was a known risk undertaken by astronauts, and would not interfere with his proudly finishing the mission.


     In between his two space flights, Tani mixed things up a bit in 2002 by working as an aquanaut in the Aquarius undersea research habitat.  This is part of NASA’s NEEMO-2 mission (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations), which the agency uses to study space crew performance in a similarly challenging environment somewhat closer to home.  Tani spent nine days in this laboratory located beneath the ocean surrounding the Florida Keys.  Somehow between all of his professional activities, Tani found time to marry an Irishwoman and have three children, with whom he’s now able to spend more time in his current management and administrative role with NASA.


     At a time when the U.S. space program is in jeopardy due to lack of funding in a poor economy, it is worth remembering how the men and women who risk their lives to explore space inspire us and make their country proud.  To paraphrase Tani himself, space exploration is done for its own sake.  It is a testament to human ingenuity and what is possible when talented individuals work together for a common goal.  The fact that few if any Americans may ever have the opportunity to go into space again is all the more reason to admire the achievements of brave astronauts like Daniel Tani.


2003 - U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce’s Excellence Award in Science and Technology

2003 - Honorary Doctorate of Science, Elmhurst College

2002 - Japanese-American Citizen League’s Nikkei of the Biennium for Science and Technology

2001 - NASA spaceflight medal.

1993 - Orbital Sciences Corporation Outstanding Technical Achievement Award

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