DANVILLE – It's been nearly six years since NASA astronaut Joe Tanner launched into space, but August may end the wait.
Tanner, 56, is slated to take off with the rest of his crew in August from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the space shuttle Atlantis. In the meantime, he's on standby as part of a rescue mission team if needed during the July mission of the Discovery shuttle.
The Danville native calls it maintaining posture.
"Only if the Discovery sustains some kind of damage that renders it unable to land, we'll come up," Tanner said.
NASA officials selected July 1 as the launch date for Discovery's trip to the International Space Station. The mission's crew will test new equipment, deliver supplies and cargo for the station's expansion and perform maintenance.
Tanner said that if there is a need for a rescue crew, it would launch 30 days after Discovery.
The rescue crew has four members, including Tanner.
A typical mission has a six-member crew comprising a commander, a pilot and four mission specialists. A rescue crew uses two less mission specialists to make room for the original crew.
As part of Tanner's scheduled mission in August, Atlantis will carry 35,000 pounds of solar arrays – groups of solar modules mounted on support structures – and batteries for the space station.
"It basically doubles the electrical generating capabilities," Tanner said.
The August mission has been more than four years in the making. Tanner and the rest of his Atlantis crew were notified of the trip in 2002.
"It's not a recreation trip. It's a working trip and we try to do the best we can," he said.
As a mission specialist, Tanner will join astronauts Cmdr. Brent W. Jett Jr., pilot Christopher J. Ferguson and mission specialists Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, Daniel C. Burbank, and Steven G. MacLean, who represents the Canadian Space Agency.
Tanner's father, Dr. William Tanner, said he plans to be there for his son's fourth launch.
"We wouldn't miss it for the world," he said. "Heartstopping it was, the first one."
William Tanner said he held his breath for 90 seconds at his son's first launch in 1994. He had been thinking of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded in 1986 and killed all seven crew members aboard.
"Now we worry about the landing," he said, referring to the last shuttle accident, when a crack caused Columbia to explode in the atmosphere on its way back to Earth in 2003.
Joe Tanner, who graduated from Danville High School in 1968 and the University of Illinois in 1973, has logged 262 hours in space and 175 orbits of Earth.
He performed two spacewalks in 1997 as part of a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
His third mission was at the end of 2000 as part of a space crew to install solar arrays at the space station and deliver supplies and equipment to its resident crew.
Joe Tanner still retains some of the thrill he had when he first went into space.
"Fulfillment of a lifelong dream. ... Can't believe I'm really here. ... Sure is beautiful. ... God is great," he said of his first impressions.
But there's business to be done, he said.
"I'm always in awe of the process at getting there," Joe Tanner said of space travel.