September 30, 2008

Astronaut the Center of the Universe at Home

By Catherine Edman

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Carefully outstretching their right hands - as if they'd just been consecrated - two girls excitedly walked away from their brush with celebrity.

Will those hands ever get a washing, a reporter asked one of the teens.

"Eventually," 15-year-old Andrea Sperry said, flashing an ear- to- ear smile.

The pair emerged from a group of Glenbard East High School students who encircled astronaut Dan Tani after his visit Tuesday to the Lombard school to talk about his four-month space journey. Sperry and her pal were among the lucky ones who got to shake hands with Tani.

Camera phones were whipped out and clicked furiously while Tani, profoundly gracious, obliged all takers.

"It's just the fact he went to our school and went so far," Sperry said. "Any of us could do that."

The 1979 East graduate arrived at the International Space Station in October expecting to stay for eight weeks and tackle at least one space walk. Problems with the shuttle that was to retrieve him, though, extended his mission through February.

He ended up taking five space walks outside the station and celebrated Christmas and his birthday away from his family. And he lost his mother, Rose, in a Lombard car accident in December.

"It was always hard for me to talk about my mom, even when she was alive," he told students during an all-school gathering in the gymnasium. "Her life influenced people in this room."

Glenbard East is recognizing both of the Tanis' accomplishments with a lilac garden in front of the school, and students presented the first bush to Dan in memory of his mother.

This was his second post-flight appearance at the school. He returned after his 2001 trip to space as well.

This time, though, he made it a point to sit among the students before he rose to sit on the stage - a fact he used to encourage those in the audience.

"I never imagined (as a student) I'd get to sit with the cheerleaders, so if you want something to shoot for, there you go," he joked.

After his former teacher Jim Carter presented him with a school gift - a red Ram jacket and a baseball cap - Tani returned the favor with presents of his own. He gave the school a flag he took with him on his mission, then he ramped up the delivery with a prize everyone was clamoring to get their hands on: A jumpsuit he wore in space.

"I guess you know what I'll be for Halloween next year," Carter said.

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