Would You Want to Know?

Dan Tani may feel like the loneliest man in the solar system right now.  He's the astronaut, now orbiting on the space station, whose mother died in an auto accident near Chicago Wednesday.  His wife and a flight surgeon got on a private radio loop that night to give him the news.

I spent Thursday working on a piece on this for World News.  In a way it affects a lot of people--soldiers in Iraq, sailors on long deployments at sea, people whose jobs take them great distances for a long time.  They all face the possibility that they will miss major events in their families' lives, good or bad, while they're far from home.  An astronaut is not much different.

But most of us never get quite as far from home as Tani must feel right now.  He's only 210 miles up, but it's a long 210 miles. His ride home--the shuttle Atlantis--is delayed at least until Jan. 10.

If you were away, and there was nothing you could do in case of a family tragedy, would you want to know about it?  Before flight, astronauts routinely fill out a checklist of personal preferences, and one of the questions is whether they would like to get bad news. 

A few say no.  But the majority, Tani included, say they'd prefer to know.  In the digital age, astronauts can have video conversations with their families, and get e-mails sent to them in orbit. 

I had a remarkable phone conversation with Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut who spent six months on the space station in 2004-5.  The day before his launch, he told me, his father-in-law died.

He'd filled out the same questionnaires as Tani, and made the same decision, that it's better to know than not. 

But his wife, despite his preferences, told NASA to keep quiet.  Let him have an upbeat, safe launch, she said.  His wife only told him the bad news a few days later, after he'd arrived at the space station.

"She made the right decision," he said.

NASA says Rose Tani's funeral will be recorded if Dan wishes, and the file will be transmitted up to the space station so he can watch it.

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