CHICAGO — Inside her Lombard, Ill., home, Rose Tani kept a shrine to her astronaut son filled with newspaper clippings of his recent launch, photos of him holding his two children and a framed image of him in a navy blue NASA uniform with the inscription: "Mom, I owe it all to you. All my love. Dan."
But as Daniel M. Tani orbited about 200 miles above Earth on Wednesday, working aboard the International Space Station, he had to hear the news that his 90-year-old mother died when a freight train smashed into her car.
Police said Rose Tani was stopped on railroad tracks behind a school bus carrying students from her son's alma mater when she honked her horn, then went around the bus and past a downed crossing gate.
In what may have been a first for NASA, officials called Daniel Tani over a secure connection to give him the news and then offered any help he might need. One thing they could not supply was a ride home. The soonest Tani can return from space is late January.
NASA spokesman Jim Rostohar said Tani would be given time to grieve in the space station, which is the size of a 3 1/2 -bedroom house.
"He would get whatever personal, psychological and spiritual counseling he would need," Rostohar said. "He can talk it out through a private phone line." The space station is equipped with a Soyuz rescue vehicle that usually is only used when the lives of the crew are at risk, Rostohar said. Using the Soyuz to bring Tani home could leave the remaining astronauts in jeopardy if there was an emergency.
"Before anyone launches, they understand that unfortunate things could happen and that's unfortunately part of the difficulties, hardships and risks of spaceflight," he said.
The Rev. Rob Hatfield, a senior minister at the First Church of Lombard United Church of Christ, said the astronaut's siblings spoke to him Wednesday evening.
"This is a unique situation, to be in orbit without a ride home," said Hatfield, speaking Wednesday on behalf of the family he described as too distraught to comment. "He feels relatively powerless." Daniel Tani's wife could not be reached for comment.
Police said a westbound Union Pacific train heading from Illinois to California slammed into Rose Tani's 1998 Honda Civic about 3 p.m. and pushed it 50 to 100 feet before coming to rest on the tracks.
"Everybody acknowledged that she ignored the gates," said Lombard Police Lt. James Glennon.
Rose Tani was pronounced dead at Good Samaritan Hospital, police said.
One of three astronauts aboard the space station, Tani, a 46-year-old flight engineer, launched Oct. 23 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on the shuttle Discovery. His mother traveled to Florida for the launch. Tani, a 1979 graduate of Glenbard East High School and MIT, has been part of a construction mission to ready the space station for two new science labs.
He also has completed several spacewalks, including one Tuesday.
During a spacewalk last month, he sent special greetings to his mother.
"I know my mom's watching on the Internet in Chicago, so hi, mom!" Tani said. "It's always fun to have your folks watching you at work."
He was to have returned to Earth this week, but problems with the fuel gauge sensors on the shuttle that was to retrieve him delayed the launch until at least Jan. 10.
"He would have been home for Christmas, but due to the difficulties we had, he'll remain," Rostohar said.