Astronaut encourages kids to dream big

Astronaut encourages kids to dream big

CHAMPAIGN – Andrew Hoetker plans to take astronaut Joe Tanner's advice to dream big. But Andrew's dream won't be "out of this world."

"Space travel is cool, but it sounds too uncomfortable for me. I think I'll stay on earth," Andrew, 10, of Champaign, said after meeting Tanner on Sunday morning during the Illinois Parent Teacher Association's 105th Annual Convention at the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites.

Tanner, a Danville native and UI graduate, spoke in detail about his last mission in September to the International Space Station during a morning workshop.

Later in the day, he gave parents, teachers and students a peak at the future of the space program during the convention's closing luncheon.

Set your goals high and reach for your dreams, Tanner told the kids in the luncheon audience of more than 300 people.

He described what space travel is really like through video, pictures and his own experiences, and then he encouraged teachers and parents to get kids interested in math and science. Because "in this room," he said, could be an astronaut or engineer who will help NASA with its next goal – to get back to the moon and then to Mars.

"Why do we want to go to Mars?" Tanner asked. "Because we are explorers."

Tanner was invited to speak Sunday by a friend and longtime member of the Illinois PTA, Josephine Bibb of Danville.

Tanner said it's organizations like the Illinois PTA that help make education a priority, and education is important for preparing the next generations to continue space exploration.

The goal, Tanner said, is for the space program to return to the moon by 2018, build a base there and then shoot for Mars.

The shuttle program, which has been flying into space since 1981, is scheduled to retire in 2010, said Tanner, who has been in space four times on shuttle missions – an above-average number for most astronauts. His first trip was in November 1994.

The September mission to deliver and assemble solar panels at the International Space Station likely was Tanner's last, he said after his morning workshop.

The shuttle has about 15 missions left, he said, and about 50 astronauts have never flown, so NASA will do its best to get them into space before the program retires.

During the workshop, Hoetker asked Tanner what will happen to the shuttles.

"You want to buy one?" Tanner joked with him.

The Smithsonian Institute already has one shuttle, he said, and the others may end up at the space stations.

Andrew Mininger, 8, also of Champaign, got Tanner's autograph and a picture with him after the morning workshop. Mininger said he thinks about being an astronaut sometimes, and a firefighter, too.

Mininger asked Tanner when he first knew he wanted to be an astronaut.

Tanner said it really wasn't until college at the UI, when he was studying to be an engineer, that he knew he wanted to be involved with the NASA program, but didn't think he had what it would take to be an astronaut.

"I believed so strongly in what they (NASA) were doing," he said.

After graduating from the UI, Tanner entered the Navy, and eventually went on to work for NASA. But once there, he realized he could be an astronaut.

He told the students on Sunday that they shouldn't sell themselves short.

Hoetker and Mininger both plan to take his advice, but first, they were just excited about meeting Tanner.

"I met an astronaut; I'm kind of in shock right now," Hoetker said after getting his picture taken with Tanner. "I want to brag a lot to my friends at school that I met a real astronaut."

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