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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Astronaut Daniel Tani was supposed to be flying home this week from the International Space Station, but because of shuttle delays, he's still in space, orbiting 200 miles above Earth. And that's where he got the news yesterday that his 90-year-old mother had been killed when a freight train struck her car outside Chicago. Rose Tani had said she fed her son's passion for flight early on, giving him rockets and model planes for Christmas. NASA says it can't think of another time when an American astronaut has lost a close family member while in space.

We wondered how the space agency would deal with this situation, so we've called Doctor Sean Roden. He's at Johnson Space Center in Houston. He's the flight surgeon for Dan Tani, in charge of his medical care while he's in space. Thanks for being with us.

Dr. SEAN RODEN (Flight Surgeon for Daniel Tani): It's my pleasure.

BLOCK: And first, Doctor Roden, how did NASA break the news to Daniel Tani?

Dr. RODEN: We have a method of having two-way video and conferencing capabilities with the Space Station. So I was alerted that there'd been a death in the family. I contacted Dan's wife and we broke the news together.

BLOCK: How did that go?

Dr. RODEN: It was hard. It was hard. I know the family very well. And being a physician, you think you'd be able to get used to breaking bad news, but you never do. And when you know him as close as the flight surgeons at NASA do with the family, it's that much more difficult.

BLOCK: What can you tell Dan Tani about how to deal with this, what to look for, any concerns that he might have and how to deal with them?

Dr. RODEN: We basically support him like we would any other person who's had a loss in the family. Before they launch into space, we discuss that if something were to happen like this, what are their wishes, so that we know ahead of time, and meet their preferences as far as breaking bad news to them.

BLOCK: You mean there might be some astronauts who would say, I don't want to know? If it means I can't come back home to deal with it, I just don't want to know?

Dr. RODEN: Yes, that's correct. Each crew is given an opportunity to discuss their wishes as far as whether they want to hear bad news or would they would rather not. The majority of the crews definitely want to know what's going on back home, good or bad.

BLOCK: There is, I gather, an emergency rescue vehicle on the Space Station. Would there be a situation where you would use that to bring an astronaut home for some situation like this?

Dr. RODEN: Actually, no. The Soyuz is there as a means of emergency departure from the Space Station. If that vehicle goes, the entire crew has to leave.

BLOCK: Their safety would need to be in jeopardy, in other words?

Dr. RODEN: That's correct.

BLOCK: I've read that Daniel Tani's family is trying to get the memorial service for his mother beamed to the Space Station. Is there a way that you can help make that happen?

Dr. RODEN: Absolutely. We can support the family in any type of communication that they want through the video conferencing. We can actually have the capability of having real-time video fed from just about any location.

BLOCK: What about Daniel Tani's flight duties? Given what's happened and the grief that he's going through, is he reassigned?

Dr. RODEN: No. We will actually be talking to Dan here later today. And we'll just check in with him and see how he's feeling and whether he needs any change in the schedule. We are offering him whatever he needs - what he feels he needs. I've been listening to him on our video feeds to the Space Station today, and he's staying very busy and trying to keep as active as possible, trying to take care of business as usual.

BLOCK: Well, Doctor Roden, thanks very much for talking with us.

Dr. RODEN: It is my pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Doctor Sean Roden at Johnson Space Center in Houston. He's in charge of the medical care for astronaut Daniel Tani while he's in space. Tani learned of his mother's death yesterday.

One other note about Daniel Tani's family: During World War II, both of his parents, Rose and Henry, were forced into internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Daniel Tani has spoken of this family history before. He said, my story as an astronaut is an amazing one. Just 60 years ago, the United States government felt that my parents were a high-enough security threat that they were locked away for over two years. Now, one generation later, the same government gives me, a child of those same detainees, the opportunity to represent our nation in space.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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