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Now featured at our Gies College of Business-sponsored ‘UI at 150 & Beyond’ website: 1973 Illinois engineering grad and 1995 Danville High Wall of Famer JOE TANNER, who around this time 20 years ago was prepping for his third space shuttle mission — a 4.47 million-mile journey to and from the International Space Station.

Here’s Editor Jeff D’Alessio, with 20 things you ought to know about the retired NASA astronaut and 1996 Varsity I’ Award winner, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday.


Like fellow UI-educated astronauts Lee Archambault (club hockey) and Mike Hopkins (football), Tanner mixed school and sports at Illinois. His team no longer exists on campus — men’s swimming was dropped following the 1992-93 season — but the three-year letterwinner still remembers the good times of the early ’70s.

“We trained and held meets in the Huff Pool in Huff Gym,” Tanner says. “It wasn’t a great pool, but we called it home.

“A few of us enjoyed jumping off the top rail of the viewing stands, much to the chagrin of the coach.”


He’s one of two Tanners with his picture on the Danville Wall of Fame.

The induction Class of 2004 included his father, Dr. L.W. “Bill” Tanner, who “has the distinction of having delivered and cared for many of the citizens of our community” as a physician, according to his Wall of Fame bio.

As impressive as Tanner’s résumé is, Dad’s might have him beat: a star swimmer himself, medical degree from the UI, Marine in World War II, was there for the battle of Iwo Jima, headed up the Family Practice Department in the UI’s School of Clinical Medicine, medical director of the first-of-its-kind health clinic at the Danville Correctional Center, 1967’s First Citizen of Danville, active in Scouting, raised all five of his sons to be Eagle Scouts.


It was Dad who taught his future Illinois Military Aviation Hall of Fame son how to fly, at Vermilion County Airport. Joe got his pilot´s license one day before joining the Navy at age 23.


For Tanner, happiness is plopping down on the couch and watching a 1975 British classic known for lines like “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”

“‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ The movie is funny but, of course, pretty dumb. What causes me to chuckle when I watch it is knowing that one of my sons can quote nearly every line in the movie.

“I try to keep up with him but he is way ahead of me. I think of him whenever I think of a line in the movie and that makes me happy.”


He’s among six Illini astronauts — but only three who’ve experienced a spacewalk (which NASA defines as “any time an astronaut gets out of a vehicle in space”).

Dale Gardner (UI Class of ’70) and Hopkins (’91) each went on two, Tanner seven. His five-hour, 26-minute walk in 2006 got the most buzz, for a photo he snapped — later listed on Popular Science as one of the best astronaut selfies of all-time.


The Bismarck-Henning Grade School grad’s first word on his first spacewalk? Hallelujah.


Tanner’s 46 hours and 29 minutes of spacewalks rank as 15th-most in world history and 13th among NASA astronauts. Leading the all-time list: Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev, with 16 walks totaling 82 hours and 22 minutes.


Long before he was an acclaimed mechanical engineer, decorated naval officer or popular professor of bioastronautics, Tanner dabbled in the occasional science experiment — as former neighbors on Danville’s North Vermilion Street may recall.

“We lived there until I was about 5 or 6,” he says. “I distinctly remember my twin brother David and I doing what we would understand later to be a pretty interesting experiment.

“We found the Christmas lights in the attic and plugged in one of the strings. The bulbs were quite large back in those days.

“He got on one end of the stretched-out string and I got on the other end. We then set up a sinusoidal wave in the string, marveling at which lights broke and which ones didn’t.

“We got in trouble for that one.”


It was a different space program in his day. How different? Tanner cherished his One example: While Hopkins (aka @AstroIllini) tweeted regularly during his 2013-14 journey up there, Tanner cherished the one video conference he was able to have with his family during each mission.


Bet you didn’t know Tanner is one of two astronauts born in the area.

The other: three-time shuttle crew member Carl Meade, who spent most of his childhood in Texas but whose birth certificate was issued on Nov. 16, 1950, in Champaign County while his dad was serving at Rantoul´s Chanute Air Force Base.


Eight Illinois cities have birthplace-of-an-astronaut bragging rights. In addition to Danville and Rantoul, there’s Canton (proud former home of UI grad Steve Nagel), Lincoln (UI grad Scott Altman), Oak Park (Archambault and Joseph Kerwin), Belleville (Sandra Magnus), Rock Island (Gary Payton) and Chicago (Gene Cernan, John Grunsfeld, Joan Higginbotham, Ken Mattingly, James McDivitt, Charles Veach).


Tanner’s vital statistics: more than 1,069 hours in space (aboard Atlantis in 1994 and 2006, Discovery in 1997, Endeavour in 2000), 46 hours spacewalking, 8,900 hours in military and NASA aircraft, and countless honors, from Johnson Space Center’s Superior Achievement Award to the UI Grainger College of Engineering’s 2002 Alumni Award for Distinguished Service.


When Neil Armstrong took one small step on July 24, 1969, teenage Joe was watching from Bloomington, Ind., where David went to school. “I was captivated,” Tanner says, “but had no idea at the time what an impact that afternoon and evening would have on my life.”


Tanner had a Colorado mailing address since retiring from NASA. But home will always be Danville, where Tanner hasn’t been a stranger.

During one of his trips back, in 2014, he served as the featured speaker at a South View Middle School assembly, taking questions afterward from the kids.

Such as:

Seen any aliens?

“I’ve looked; no. Haven´t even seen anything strange.”

How fun was the International Space Station?

“About as much fun as you can imagine. You can play a killer game of hide and seek there.”

What´s your favorite thing to do in space?

“Look out the window.”


He’s a proud ex-Scout, taking a Prairielands Council patch to space with him during his inaugural 1994 voyage. Also along for the ride: a Danville city flag and a patch from the Danville Family YMCA.


During his final shuttle mission, Tanner brought two special mementos — a gearshift knob from his oldest son’s 1969 Camaro and his youngest son’s keychain ornament.


If Tanner could go anywhere in the universe, “of course, it would be Mars. How exciting a human landing on Mars would be, as we set foot on another planet in our solar system.”


A radical Tanner prediction about the future of spaceflight: “Interstellar travel in a timely manner. That kind of travel will require someone to figure out a way to move faster than the speed of light. That is not possible with our current understanding of physics so this is a real out-of-the-box thought.”


A more realistic Tanner prediction: “I envision multiple Earth-orbiting, privately-owned space stations where normal people can vacation. They might be called Space Hotels. A less expensive and safer means of travel to and from low earth orbit will need to be developed. It is too expensive with our current technologies.”


No, NASA didn’t let Tanner keep his spacesuit — which back in his day weighed 300 pounds and cost around $5 million to make.

“I was able to keep my personal items, like crew shirts, that were purchased just for me. I wear one now and again. They also let me keep my silverware and hygiene items like toothpaste. That is about it except for numerous plaques, pictures and awards.

“I have nothing of real value to anyone but me. The memories are nice.”


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