CHICAGO - Inside her Lombard 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 Tani orbited about 200 miles above Earth on Wednesday, captive aboard the International Space Station, he had to hear the news that his mother died when a freight train smashed into her car.
Police said Rose Tani, 90, was stopped at railroad tracks behind a school bus carrying students from her son's alma mater. Apparently impatient, 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. What they could not supply was a ride home. The soonest Tani can return from space is late January.
NASA spokesman Jim Rostohar said Tani will be given time to grieve in the space station, which is the size of a 31/2-bedroom house.
Daniel Tani was born in Ridley Park, Delaware County, but considers Lombard, Ill., to be his hometown.
The space station is equipped with a Soyuz rescue vehicle that generally 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 an emergency occurred.
"This is a unique situation to be in orbit without a ride home," said the Rev. Rob Hatfield, a senior minister at the First Church of Lombard United Church of Christ, speaking on behalf of the family he described as distraught.
Police said a westbound Union Pacific train heading from Illinois to California slammed into Rose Tani's 1998 Honda Civic about 3 p.m. The car was pushed 50 to 100 feet before coming to rest on the tracks.
Daniel Tani, 46, a flight engineer, is one of three astronauts aboard the space station. They launched Oct. 23 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on the shuttle Discovery. He has done several space walks, including one Tuesday.
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.