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Citizen of the Planet
Episode 130th September 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
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To Dan Tani, becoming an astronaut seemed unimaginable. And yet, for 16 years, Tani lived his dream as a NASA astronaut, going on two space expeditions. In this episode, Tani reflects on his pride in the U.S., his love for planet Earth, and his passion for sharing his experiences with others. Among all of his identities, Tani is proud to be a good “citizen of the planet.”

Voices of Exchange is a podcast from the U.S. Department of State, brought to you by the Office of Alumni Affairs at State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), featuring stories from the millions-strong exchange program alumni network.

New episodes of Voices of Exchange are released every two weeks on Thursdays on iTunes or on your favorite podcast platform, and you can also listen to this episode and season one of Voices of Exchange on our website at alumni.state.gov.

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Dan Tani

Um, my name is Dan Tani, and uh, I grew up in Chicago, but not... Right now I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Uh, currently I am a director of a non-profit foundation, called the U.S.-Japan Foundation, and we are interested in bettering the relationship between the people of the United States and Japan.

But for 16 years I was a NASA astronaut, located in Houston, Texas, at the Johnson Space Center.

You know, I grew up in the '60s and so, like virtually everybody in and around the world, you know, I would play astronaut and pretend to be an astronaut, and think about being an astronaut. But I really had no idea that that was even possible to become an astronaut.

You know, I went to public school and, and uh, graduated, went to university and studied engineering, and um, my first job, uh, out of college was with a big aerospace company in California, and uh, they happened to be making, uh, rockets and satellites. And so that's the... That's exciting. I mean, building satellites is really exciting. So that's, uh, the job I chose for my first job.

Well, that company had the misfortune of having a satellite that didn't work in space. It got deployed and didn't work on the space shuttle. And so, uh, they had to find a team to figure out how to go fix that satellite, and of course, uh, since, since the company I worked for made the manuf- manufactured the satellite, uh, we got to build the tools and the, the, uh, pieces that the astronauts would use to go fix the satellite. And it was really exciting when the astronauts came and visited our plant, and uh, talked to us and, uh, discussed what kind of tools they would need. And, so I, I got to meet these astronauts and it was just an exciting thing to hang out with them for the day and go to lunch with them and talk to them.

And uh, then later in my career I... At a different company I worked with more astronauts, and the sort of slow, a-ha moment for me was that, um, by meeting these astronauts and talking to them and getting to know, you know, funny things about them and their families, I realized uh, that they're just... They're people with jobs. They're people that have a great job. I never really thought about that, I never thought about an astronaut as somebody who applies for the job and gets the job. But, um, once I realized that, that it's uh, achievable to anybody who has the... Can fill out the application, um, it... That set a seed in my head.

So I went back to graduate school and, and uh, uh, got another job of course- as I said, in the aerospace industry. And then I heard somebody say, "Hey, you know, they're taking applications for the astronaut program," and uh, they do that every... About every two years. And so, uh, a couple of guys I worked with look at each other and said, "Well, you know, we'd be stupid not to apply, (laughs), to be an astronaut." I mean it's, uh, it seems like the greatest job in the world, so we filled out the applications and sent them in.

Uh, I just got really, really lucky and out of, you know, thousands of applications, mine got pulled to go for the interview. Uh, and um, and out of 120 they interviewed, I was one of 35 that got picked that year. A, a huge class of astronauts, but uh, it was, uh, quite surprising to me that, uh, that I made it even as far as the interview, much less getting selected.

I, I remember the, the, the moment distinctly because, um, it's one of those things that, uh, you just absolutely remember. Uh, and it was January 7th, I remember the date, and I remember I was taking down, um, uh, Christmas lights from my house. And uh, I heard the phone ring and I heard my wife pick it up, and she said she gave me the phone and said, um, "It's the chief of the astronaut office” - my boss. And there's not many reasons why the chief of the astronaut office would call you on a Sunday afternoon. And so, uh, um, I got on the phone and he said, "Hey, we're putting a crew together to fly, uh, later this year, and uh, we'd like you to be a member of that crew."

So it's one of those moments where it's, uh, a whirlwind of emotions. Uh, it's, you know, it wasn't as shocking to me as getting the call to be interviewed to be an astronaut. Uh, because you know, we are selected to be astronauts and we're sort of waiting for the call to get, uh, assigned a mission and we know, uh, most likely that we're gonna get that call. Uh, of course it's exciting when it happens.

The call to become... To come down to Houston for the interview was a complete shock. That was out of the blue for me. And uh, that was a, a rush of emotions and thoughts and ideas and questions that I, uh, you know, felt, uh, were... I had no way of expressing all of those emotions.

But, uh, getting the call to be a, a crew member was fantastic, and then of course I wanted to know who I was gonna fly with, whom my commander was gonna be, all that stuff. And uh, it started a whole year of, uh, a whirlwind year of training and, and learning to be a crew member and, and uh, the anticipation of my first mission.

Um, you know, we... When we're in training, the moment we're selected to be an astronaut, we are, uh, we are knee-deep in data and s- procedures and uh, um, regulation and expectations. And so, the... For the year of training, we are so involved in how do we get the space shuttle up into orbit safely? How do we transform the spaceship into... The shuttle into a space, an orbiting laboratory? You know, all of the technical things that you have to do, and, and we, we take notes and we cram for, uh, for simulations and we, you know, we're so involved in the mechanics of getting into space and doing the work that we are expected to do when we're up there.

And there are... It, it's easy to lose the emotion and the philosophical aspect of wow, they're gonna, they're gonna put me on a rocket and I'm gonna go 17,500 miles an hour. And uh, and so even on launch day, you get strapped in and, um, there's a... You know, we are strapped in about, uh, two-and-a-half hours before launch, and so there is a moment there, when, when they're getting the rocket, the space shuttle ready to go, where there's not much for us to do. Uh, and we fall back into this familiar pattern, uh, uh, the crew does, of joking around and talking to each other, because we do that, uh, a lot in the simulations, it feels just like the sim.

And uh, however, you know, on launch day it's different, and you know it's different. And you have this... I had this feeling like, you know, any minute now they're gonna figure out they made a mistake and chose the wrong guy and come and pull me off this thing, because I don't know why I got fortunate enough to be sitting in this seat, and get ready to go into, to space.

Um, but my expectations were mostly technical. My expectations were on day two, I've got to get that suit ready to go and do my spacewalk. I have to, um, you know, there's... I'm, I'm in charge of all the cameras and all the film back then, it was film. And so I'm in charge of all that. And so, my mind was filled with, uh, making sure I get my job done. And really the, the, the um, emotional part of it was kind of secondary. Um, but until you, until you light those engines and boy, it's just a fantastic experience, and then it was uh... I was trying to be in data record mode, I was trying to... I was talking to myself, "Don't forget what this is like, try to remember every moment of this. This is so, uh, this is such an, an amazing experience, I really would like to remember this so I can tell my friends," and, and um, and express to people who, who will not, probably not get this chance to do this, that, uh, what it's like. Because it's just fantastic.

Well, what did it feel like? Again, just like a launch, you're so... Your head is so full of procedures and making sure the machine of the spacesuit is working properly, that, uh, it's easy to, uh, it's easy to not think about what an incredible experience, uh, you're going to have. Um, I've always said I've, I've had the pleasure of doing six spacewalks, and I've always said, uh, the space... ‘The Best part of the spacewalk is when it's over and you can look back on it.’ And uh, think about the experience that you had because you're so, uh, concerned with making sure that you do the right thing at that moment and know what your job is, that it's not, uh, it's not easy to appreciate the moment that you have.

But, uh, first of all I got to do my first spacewalk with, uh, uh, a great friend of mine, and a, a, a wonderful woman that became a mentor of mine, Linda Godwin, and so we got suited up, and uh, just like the simulations, just like the practices we had, um, the suits worked great. And then you open the door and, uh, you leave the, um, the, the environment of the space shuttle and now you're in, in space.

Now the space... Doing a spacewalk from the space shuttle was a little bit different, emotionally, than the Space Station. Uh, when you leave the space shuttle through the airlock you're in what's called a payload bay, so you leave the space shuttle, but you look around and you're surrounded by this, more of the space shuttle. The cargo bay. So it doesn't feel like you're out in the open of space. You will be in a few minutes, but, but for that moment you're not.

On the Space Station, when you open the door and you, you float out the hatch, you are filled with nothing but earth. Uh, your, your visor can see nothing but earth and you see, as you leave, you don't see any of the Space Station. And it feels like now you're just part of, uh, of the universe looking down at earth. So, uh, it, it's a much different experience leaving the Space Station than it was leaving the space shuttle.

So, I've had two trips to space, and my first one was for two weeks on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. We went to the Space Station and, uh, it was just a, just a fantastic, uh, introduction to space. And uh, but as I, as I mentioned, working on the space shuttle is, uh, I mean you are scheduled every 15 minutes, you're up there for a short amount of time, so they need to maximize the amount of work you do. And so, there is very little downtime on a space shuttle mission.

Going to the Space Station is much different, and for me a huge pleasure because now you live in space. That's... Now it's your home for those few months. And uh, we work hard, we work, uh, five and a half day weeks, but there are moments where... There are days where you have nothing scheduled. Because that's, that's what a resident would do. And so, um, uh, Sundays and half of Saturday, uh, were... They were just fantastic because now, uh, I could go to the window, I could just sit in the for... In the window for hours and, and watch the earth roll by. I could, um, uh, look at all my pictures and sort of do all the administrative stuff that you do have to do, uh, on earth. But I... You get to do it in space.

So for me, my Space Station mission was a real pleasure. I got to, um, make a home out of the Space Station. I had to... I got to find my favorite places to hang out, um, sometime it would get warm up there and so you know where the cool places are to just, to hang out. Um, you know, uh, you can look at your predicts for the next week and see where you're going to be flying over, and oh, I'm gonna go over Paris and so you can, uh, set the alarm on your watch so that you can go take some pictures of, of Paris or some other place that you wanna see on earth.

And so, uh, life on the Space Station, for me, was just fantastic. Now, I, I was up with a crew of three, um, my boss, the commander, was Peggy Whitson, and then my other, uh, flight engineer was, uh, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, and um, the three of us got along really well, uh, um, Peggy is a very accomplished astronaut. She's a classmate of mine, so we knew each other for quite a long time. And um, and so... And she's a farm girl from Iowa, so I learned a lot about, uh, farming. And uh, all the, all the, uh, very difficult things that farmers have to do, (laughs).

And then uh, uh, Yuri had a daughter about my age. About the age of my children, and so it was wonderful to connect with him about how his daughter was doing and how he communicates with his wife and, and children and, and so, uh, we had a lot to talk about, uh, there also. So as a community, as a crew, uh, I could not ask for, uh, a better, uh, crew mates and we really, uh, I think enjoyed our... Each other's company and we got a lot of work done, too.

What, what's really interesting is, uh, I get the question a lot. Which is, you know, when you came, uh, when you were in space, what foods did you crave? What did you really, you know, what, what, what were you missing in space? Um, and my answer is, pretty much nothing. I mean, the food up there was delicious and I did not sit around and crave, "Oh, I wish I had, you know, this or that."

Eating in space is very important. Eating in general is very important. And NASA, all the space agencies understand the morale importance of food and how it's... You always want to look forward to, uh, something that you're gonna eat. And also the social environment. Peggy was, was fantastic in mandating that we have dinners together. And that, that was important family time for us. And so, yeah, food is... We feel food is very important.

Um, when I was on the Space Station, and I... It's still true now, uh, half the food is donated, or half the food is provided by the, the uh, NASA system, the American system. And half is provided by the Russians. And so when we get to the dinner table, we can choose whichever one we eat, you know, and it's just sort of what you happen to be hungry for during that... At that time. Or else you'll look into your pantry and say, "Hey, we're loaded up here on the beef stew, we've gotta start eating down this beef stew."

Um, I liked all of it. There were very few things that I wouldn't eat. There were a couple of cans of meat, uh, that the, uh Russians provided that just didn't sound, uh, good to me. And so, uh, as long as, uh, as long as, uh, my Russian counterpart, my Russian crew mate Yuri would, would eat them, we, we, uh, I didn't feel badly about not eating, uh, some of those Russian, uh, cans of food. But some of the Russian stuff was fantastic.

I would say my favorite thing in space is this, uh, sweet cheese that the... That Russians have. There's a sweet cheese that the Russians have called tvorg, and it's... Think of it like, uh, the, uh, cheesecake. It's that sort of sweet cheese, um, and uh, uh, they have it both in cans, which is delicious, and they also have it powdered and you add water and you mix it together. And we would take some strawberries and rehydrate them, and uh, and put them on the tvorg and it was all, it was like a cheesecake. I really miss that. I have not had tvorg since I've, uh, been back to earth.

Um, the irony is, when I got back to earth, there was space food that I still crave. And so, uh, it's a, it's a surprise to people to find out that I sit at home and I go... First of all, that tvorg, I would love to have... To eat some tvorg. And there was real pleasure in, uh, when a new, uh, spacecraft would come up, they would bring fresh vegetables and fruit for us, and uh, one of the things that Peggy would do is, she would take an apple and she would eat apple and peanut butter, which I'd never seen before. But I love that now. And now, every time I get an apple, I'll slice it up and I'll put peanut butter on it, it brings me right back to being on the Space Station.

Well, I would say the whole, the whole experience of being an astronaut has been very, uh, has been very good for me. I, uh, of course learned a lot about what I am capable of doing, and what I am incapable of doing. Where I was able to draw... Uh, or I was able to refine the boundaries of what, uh, I, uh, let me say this. I was able to help, uh, define the boundaries of what I, uh, have the capability and interest of doing and what I don't. But also what my job is, what my role is in, in the team and how to best help the team.

Really as astronauts, one of the things that we learned, one of the most important things I learned is the importance of teamwork. And I know everybody, um, everybody talks about teamwork as important, but the astronaut program and NASA really focuses on that. We do specific training on teamwork. And uh, I don't think that I would understand how teams work and what my role in any given team would be, if I was not an astronaut, because we focused on it so much. And so now I think about leadership and teamwork all the time, because uh, I think that was the culture of what we were taught and what we were asked to be really good at astronauts and crew members on a space mission.

So I think that's what I've really learned. It wasn't particularly being in space, it was the whole process of training, uh, to be a crew member, both on the space shuttle and on the Space Station. And those are skills and ideas that I take with me every day in my, in my life, both professionally and personally.

So you know, I lived in Japan for a couple of years, and you'd be in the subway, and it's packed, and you're in the middle. And the doors open, 20 people are gonna try to get on, and there's hardly room for one person to get on. And what that team needs right now for you standing in the middle is for you to shuffle over three inches, so that the next guy can shuffle over four inches so you can make room. And I think leadership, like, my job... The team right now is this car of people, and the thing I can do to help the... This car of people right now is to squeeze into the corner a little bit more so that more people can squeeze in and we can get, uh, two or three more people onto the car.

And uh, I, I really... It's funny, I, I really now think about how do you help the team, and what does the team mean? Is it my family, is it my community right now? Is it a, a, you know... And a lot of time it's the world. What can I, what can I do, what's my role in the world and, uh, what can I do best to help, uh, that team?

My interaction with the State Department is, I've been privileged to be, uh, a participant in the Speakers Program and uh, as part of that program I've got to visit Japan and Portugal, uh, and Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco. It's been fabulous and I've done virtual visits to Malta and Madagascar. It's just been a, a wonderful experience for me.

I mean, these, these trips have really, uh, allowed me to grow in ways that I would not have been able to or, uh, experience things that I would not have, uh, been able to. Uh, one of the, one of the, at least on my end, one of the thoughts I have is... And it was not with the State Department trip, but I was asked to go overseas and speak at an American school, or an international school at a commencement. And I'd never been in an international school before. I'd never seen an international school, and it was fantastic.

It was in Germany, it was just wonderful. The people were great and the students were having a great time, and, uh, the languages they spoke and the, the diversity of the, of the um, student body, it was just fantastic. That set a seed in my head, which two years later, turned into me bringing my family to Japan because I wanted my kids to do an American school experience. And so we went to Tokyo and my kids, uh, attended the American school there. And I actually taught at the American school there, that, that was the vehicle that I was able to bring my, uh, family to Japan.

So, I mean I think that's a big ripple effect. Um, uh, I, I have heard anecdotally of, uh, people that have come to listen to me speak and now, uh, really want to work as an engineer or want to work in the space, uh, in- industry. And that's fantastic. If I can, if I... Whenever I hear those stories I am amazed that I had the, not power, but it... That, that just my presence, just hearing my story, allowed people to dream a little bit bigger, or to um, widen their horizon a little bit more to things that are, um, possible and, and I... You know, I'm, I'm warmed by that, I think that's, uh, a wonderful response to hearing me speak about space.

Sure. I, you know, as an American I feel so privileged in all the opportunities that I've been given. And, uh, the fantastic place that I get to live and the fantastic, um, the amenities of being an American. I never want to take it for granted. And, um, through this program, it's been wonderful to go and, uh, be an example of an American to many people that may have never had met an American before, or certainly don't interact with them on a regular basis.

And um, uh, I feel, I feel a responsibility and a privilege to, uh, convey my story, which is a fantastic story. I mean it's... I can't... I'm constantly amazed at the opportunities and privilege that I have been, uh, provided. And so, uh, yes. I love to have fun with, uh, audiences and, and bring them to space and show them the cool things that, that we get to do and see.

Uh, but I also recognize that, as a representative of the United States, I'm there to be friendly, I'm there to be funny, I am there to, uh, be uh, empathetic and uh, to, uh, ask questions, uh, about uh, how they live and what they do and what they, what they like and, uh, uh, I try to find out a little bit about what their impressions of America and Americans are. Most of the people that come and talk to me of course, uh, want to be there and want to interact with an American. Uh, but um, so you know, I view it as such a great learning experience for me, but I also recognize, of course, that um, you know, I want them to come away with a positive image of the United States.

And uh, so I, I do feel that responsibility. And um, uh, space is such an easy and accessible way to reach people, uh, that... Because it's not really cultural. Um, you know, it's amazing to me that kindergartners around the world love space and love things that fly around. And, um, and so I'm, you know, I'm lucky in that the vocabulary that I have, the tools that I have to communicate with people are so universal and, uh, um, in that way it's, it's easier for me to, uh, get the attention or to, uh, start the conversation with, uh, with people around the world. Um, and try and connect with them and try to have them connect with me as, as the American they get to talk to for that day.

Yeah. I say that, you know, sort of the, the real point of pride for me is that, um, the irony of my parents had their cameras and their radios taken away from them because they were not trusted with radios and cameras. Yet just one generation later, you know, that same government spent a lot of money teaching me how to use cameras and radios. And I... It's a real point of pride, not only for my, um, you know, the Japanese-Americans or my heritage, but it's also a real point of pride for my government, uh, that, that we have been able to, uh, uh, get... We have been able to address that black mark on our history and reconcile, uh, reconcile it.

And so I'm very proud of both my, uh, my community and my government, uh, for getting to where we are now.

So, typically, um, you know, I'm the astronaut. So they want to see rockets fly and they want to see people floating around. And they want to see what it looks like, what the earth looks like from space and they want to talk about exploration.

And so, um, I really like to just tell my story and, and show them what it's like to be inside the space shuttle when it's launching and um, what it feels like to put the helmet on and go out on a spacewalk. And I think the... And the message I try to convey is basically, I was pretty much like most of my audience. I wasn't born into, you know, great wealth, nor, nor privilege. In fact, um, my family, my parents were imprisoned by their government just for being Japanese or having Japanese ancestry. They weren't... They were, they were, uh, native-born U.S. citizens, but their parents were Japanese.

And so, uh, you know, that seems like a real, uh, deter- that seems like you're really starting from far behind to, to end up to go into space. And so I like to try and connect and be a... As human as I can to my audiences, so that maybe they can connect with hey, he's... To have that idea that I originally had, which is, "Hey, this is just a person. And it's... And, um, they have a great job and they've done some incredible things, and maybe that's something  that I can do."

So A, I like to be a person, and I like to try to connect on a human level with my audiences. And then one of the messages I like to convey as an astronaut is, what a beautiful earth we live on. And I mean, it's visually beautiful and I show pictures and movies of just how stunning the earth looks from the vantage point of the Space Station or the space shuttle. And the message I try to convey is gosh, I am so proud to be a citizen of that, and you know, we all have memberships that we like to adhere to and sometimes they conflict and, and uh, but when it... When it boils down to what is your real membership, and for me now it's being a citizen of the planet and, um, and…

So I try to shrink all of our experiences to we all live here. This is our home, and um, you know, we speak different languages, and we eat different food, and uh... But, uh, if we can see ourselves as mostly the same, you know, maybe some of the problems that, uh, that we're experiencing can be a little bit less. Uh, we're not gonna eliminate all, all pain and all suffering, but, but if we can all feel like we're all in this together, you know, maybe our chan- our attitudes can change a little bit, and we can have, uh, a better attitude about each other. 


Um, yeah, I mean this is, this is what... This is exactly what I try to do every time I talk to groups about, about space. Um, as much as I hate analogies, an analogy that I... That might resonate with people is that, um, when you sit in your house, and you look around. A lot of the time you look at the paint that's peeling in the corner, or the door that squeaks or the, the, you know, something that just isn't right with your house and it really bothers you and, and you know, it, it really gets at you.

But then there's a moment when you're driving by your house, and you look at it, and it's your home, and you're just filled with warmth and you love your house. You love your home. Um, and, and the, the paint is still peeling and the door still squeaks, but you... That difference in perspective allows you to feel a kinship to your home. And um, sometimes it just takes stepping away a few feet, uh, and, and looking at it as a whole instead of looking up really close.

And that's how I feel about our Spaceship Earth. I think that it's too easy for us to be down here, uh, where we are most of the time, even the astronauts. And think about the peeling paint and the squeaking door and all the little things that bothers us about it. And the, the few... The privileged few of us get to take a few steps back, and look at our home as, uh, as our home. I mean, look at our planet as our home. I, I would... You know, if, if people can think about that and go, "You know, I've had that experience, I've had that experience of seeing a picture, maybe on Google Earth of my house and feeling pride and feeling like, oh, that's my house. I love that house."

Um, and extending, and extending that, that imagery to our planet and, and uh, the... Having that emotion of yes, I... You're right. The little things bother me, but I take a step back and for that moment it's not so important. And that's what we astronauts get the privilege of doing and, um, you know, when I fly over the earth, I, I, I get to fly over Africa and I know the millions of people that are down there, I, I wonder what they're doing and, you know, what's going on in their lives and, and you know, and I'll probably never, ever meet them. But I feel like, uh, I'm, I'm with them.

And then I go over Asia, and all the people of Asia. And so, um, and, and so you know, I would love for uh, all the people on earth to feel like earthlings. And uh, and, and, and carry the, you know... Wear the badge of being an earthling and feel like that's a, that's the club they belong to. And uh, that's what fills me with, uh, optimism, um, uh, after coming back from, from space. And that, that is what I want to share with the people of earth.