DANVILLE — Joe Tanner knows something about setting high goals.
His was about 200 miles above Earth.
The 64-year-old astronaut eventually reached that lofty target, but not until his 40s, when he was chosen as a crew member for the first of his four space shuttle missions.
With a large picture of Earth looming over his shoulder on a video screen, Tanner told wide-eyed students at Danville's South View Middle School on Monday that he wanted them to remember two things.
"I want you to set your goals high," said the 1968 Danville High School grad, "and never give up."
Now-retired from NASA and an instructor in the aerospace engineering sciences department at the University of Colorado, Tanner told his hometown students they need post-secondary education or training, because the workforce has demands for more skilled workers all the time.
If someone discourages you or says you're not qualified, he told the kids, commit to improving your skills.
"It took me a long while to achieve my ultimate goal," said Tanner, who shared the details of his long journey to space — how he applied to the program five times over 12 years before finally being accepted.
In response to an invitation from his Danville High classmate, South View teacher Janet Pipkin, Tanner graciously gave up his Monday morning at the tail end of a two-week visit back home to answer students' questions and share his experiences as an astronaut. It was one part show, one part tell — Tanner brought photos and videos from one of his missions to the International Space Station.
He spoke to the entire student body in two separate assemblies, then had lunch in the school library with a smaller group of students.
Tanner's message was "powerful," South View Principal Sharon Phillips said, showing students "you can achieve something when you believe in yourself and work hard."
Part of the lunchtime group, Dasha Randle asked Tanner several questions, including what other careers he could have pursued with his University of Illinois education and training.
Dasha, who wants to be a computer engineer, computer programmer or doctor, said she enjoyed learning about being in space — like the fact that it makes one a little taller, temporarily.
The eighth-grader found the aim-high message particularly inspiring.
"I hope I do," Dasha said.
When asked about NASA, Tanner told the students they're the No. 1 reason the United States should have a "robust" program. Having an interest in space exploration, he said, sparks learning about science and technology.
As a child, Tanner said he was motivated by the Apollo missions, just as generations after his were by the shuttle program.
"But what are we doing right now?" he asked the kids.
Some answered: the goal is Mars.
"Not really. Not actively," Tanner said, explaining that NASA's hope is to get there in 2035 — at the earliest.
He said not every student inspired by an active space program will become a part of it. But at least they'll have a passion for science and technology.
"And that's what this country needs," Tanner said.
Kids' stuff Some of the questions Joe Tanner fielded Monday: 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."