Station Astronaut Draws Support From Earth After Family Loss

Space station astronaut Dan Tani is drawing on the support of physicians and family after the unexpected death of his mother this week.

Tani's 90-year-old mother Rose died Wednesday after her car was struck by a train in his hometown of Lombard, Ill. His wife Jane and a NASA flight surgeon relayed the tragic news to the astronaut in a private conference, the agency said.

"The entire NASA family grieves with Dan on the unexpected loss of his mother yesterday," said Michael Coats, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a written statement. "We will work to provide Dan and his family with any assistance that they need during this difficult time."

NASA spokesperson Kylie Clem told that Tani and his Expedition 16 crewmates - like every space station crew - are assigned their own flight surgeon and support team.

Guided by NASA's Flight Surgeon Office at JSC, the team ensures that long-duration astronauts are healthy and rested for their marathon missions. Astronauts can also reach out to flight controllers and families vie an Internet protocol phone, radio and video links, NASA has said.

While Tani has elected to continue with his daily tasks, his schedule is open for adjustment should he feel it necessary, Clem said.

"It can be as flexible as he needs it to be," she added.

The agency's response is similar to one used to support the space station's Expedition 6 crew in 2003, when seven astronauts were killed after their shuttle Columbia broke apart as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere.

Tani can also look to his crewmates, Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, Clem added.

"The crew that's there, they work together so closely and that does add some additional support," she said.

Rose Tani's death occurred one day after her son and Whitson performed a spacewalk to inspect two malfunctioning joints serving the station's power-producing solar arrays.

Lost holiday

Tani, 49, is making his second career spaceflight and was initially slated to return to Earth Wednesday after a brief stay aboard the ISS.

But fuel tank sensor glitches on NASA's space shuttle Atlantis, Tani's ride home, delayed a planned December launch until next month. That left Tani stuck aboard the ISS with Whitson and Malenchenko -- who already planned to spend the holiday in space -- until Atlantis arrives in mid-January.

"We knew there was a chance for me being up here for Christmas because of the short launch window in December," Tani told reporters earlier this week. "So we mentally prepared for that."

Before launching to the ISS in October, Tani told reporters that he and his wife made sure they prepared presents for their daughters Keiko and Lilly just in case a shuttle flight delay kept him from their Houston home during the holidays.

"My presents are probably under a tree in Houston," Tani said, adding that his family may have shipped some smaller items to the space station just in case.

Whitson, the ever-prepared station commander, said she also made sure to prepare a gift for Tani should he miss his ride home this month. The astronauts will also hold a holiday dinner of sorts after rummaging through their pantry for prepackaged pouches of smoked turkey, cornbread dressing and candied yams.

"We, on the space station, hope that all our friends and family are doing well, of course," Tani told reporters this week via a video link. "We are privileged to live here on the space station and it's hard to call a day in space a sacrifice."

Space station managers on Tuesday promised to get Tani home early next year.

"We kept Dan on board past Christmas," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager, after Tuesday's spacewalk. "We kind of owe it to him to get him home."

Tariq Malik Editor-in-chief

Tariq is the editor-in-chief of Live Science's sister site He joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, focusing on human spaceflight, exploration and space science. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times, covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University.