Tanner reflects on final space shuttle trip

DANVILLE – Astronaut Joe Tanner took a last look at Earth from space right before space shuttle Atlantis re-entered the earth's atmosphere Sept. 21.

"I'm going to miss really looking at Earth from up there," the 56-year-old Danville native said on Monday. "It's an emotional and spiritual thing for me."

Tanner, an alumnus of the University of Illinois, wrapped up his fourth and last space flight Sept. 21 on the space shuttle Atlantis.

Atlantis carted up 35,000 pounds of solar panels to the international space station. Tanner and a five-member crew installed the 17-ton truss addition that helps power the station. It was the first construction work to the station since the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

The mission garnered some concern 220 miles below after a couple of bolts slipped away during two separate spacewalks.

Tanner said the media overplayed the missing bolts.

"It was irresponsible, sensational journalism," Tanner said. "We had 258 bolts to remove. The fact that we only lost two of them, I felt like we did pretty good."

Tanner said the media overlooked the real concern – a bolt that would not come loose.

During a spacewalk on Sept. 13, Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency and astronaut Dan Burbank had trouble removing a bolt that prevented adjusting a rotary joint. The joint allows two solar arrays to always face the sun as the space station rotates the Earth. Since the solar arrays will eventually supply 25 percent of the space station's power, the joint needed to be adjusted so the arrays could face the sun.

The hourlong attempt to loosen the bolt was "so stressful and so dramatic," Tanner said, because the success of the mission depended on positioning the solar arrays properly. The astronauts eventually did it.

"It was a Herculean effort," Tanner said. "For us, the bolt had to come off."

Tanner said he doesn't know yet what his next move will be – with NASA or anyone else. He's eligible for retirement in two years.

"It's my wife's turn to make a decision," Tanner said.

He has, however, planned a visit to the area.

As has been his habit, Tanner took up banners and T-shirts for area schools on his last mission as well as a couple of trinkets for his sons.

"I'd like to come back before Christmas break," Tanner said.

A visit from Tanner to his alma mater is what students at Bismarck-Henning schools are looking forward to.

"We're always thrilled to death every time he's gone into space," said schools Superintendent Randy Hird. "He's had an unbelievable career following him."

Tokens from Tanner's previous flights are displayed in the school's hallways, Hird said.

"What a wonderful role model he is for all of us," Hird said.

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