UI graduate's fourth space shuttle flight set for Sunday

DANVILLE – NASA astronaut Joe Tanner plans to take only two items with him on his last launch into space next week – a gearshift knob from his oldest son's 1969 Camaro and his youngest son's keychain ornament.

The tokens are memorabilia of Tanner's last space flight for his sons, Tanner said.

"They are understanding and proud of their papa," the Danville native said in a phone interview from his Texas office. "At the same time, they're a little bit concerned about their father's well-being."

Last Wednesday, NASA officials voted to launch the space shuttle Atlantis on Sunday. Tanner, 56, and five crew members are set to lift off at 3:30 p.m. CDT from Kennedy Space Center in Florida for an 11-day mission to the international space station. This marks Tanner's fourth and last launch into space.

"I'm going to enjoy every minute of it as much as I can," Tanner said. "I'm going to soak up every sight, sound, feeling and emotion."

The six-member crew will double the electrical generating capacity of the station by transporting and installing 35,000 pounds of solar panels. Three spacewalks are set.

This morning, the crew went into a seven-day quarantine period. The quarantine prevents the flight crew from being exposed to any infectious diseases. They'll reside in the Astronaut Quarantine Facility at Johnson Space Center in Texas and continue to train for the mission, NASA officials said.

Tanner said they will study last-minute details, notes and reminders during this time. He said they'll also make any last-minute physical fitness preparations.

Tanner said he spent time prior to the quarantine preparing his family for his expected three-week absence by doing chores around the house and readying his personal affairs.

But this week, it's all about the mission.

"As we get closer to the launch, I stop thinking about the fridge and concentrate on the only thing at hand," he said.

His crew has worked together as a team for this mission since 2002. Tanner said he started to "get pumped" for this mission after the Discovery crew returned from its mission July 17. That crew delivered supplies and tested equipment at the space station.

"It wasn't until (space shuttle Discovery) was successful that I realized ours really was going to happen," Tanner said.

Tanner said that visiting space is a "once-in-a-lifetime experience that I've been blessed with four times."

"I do feel like an astronaut," he said. "Sometimes I pinch myself and ask myself 'Is this all real?' Living that seems unreal often, but I can't deny the fact that I'm doing it. I feel very privileged to have done so."

Once this mission is over, Tanner said he'll visit the Danville area to "do the school circuit as usual" and may also schedule presentations at the Danville Library.

He'll stay on with NASA for at least another two years until he's eligible for retirement and make any future career plans then.

Tanner's father, Dr. William Tanner, said he will see his son at a NASA-sponsored dinner for family members in Florida later this week. He said that, as usual, he will tell his son that he loves him and he's proud of what he's accomplished.

While the danger of a space mission is a concern, William Tanner said, he believes his son will be safe.

"We accept the fact that it's potential hazardous and they do everything they can to prevent things from happening," he said. "We have faith."

A graduate of Danville High School and the University of Illinois, Joe Tanner has logged 262 hours in space and 175 orbits of Earth. His last mission was in 2000 aboard the shuttle Endeavor, when the crew installed the first set of solar arrays on the space station.

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