DANVILLE — At 19 years old and working at Vermilion Hills Country Club, Joseph Tanner might have had an inkling what this Sunday in 1969 would mean for the United States, but possibly not for his own future.
He had just purchased his first car ever — a used MGB — and he planned to drive it to Bloomington, Ind., where his twin brother, David, was working for the summer and participating in activities with the Indiana swim team.
He wanted to show off the car, but he also wanted to watch something on television that day — Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon. The two had landed their craft on the moon on July 20, 1969, and Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module a few hours later.
“It was an important moment for everybody in the '60s,” Tanner said, “for everyone that followed the transition from the launch of Sputnik and the development of NASA programs.
“We would even shut down school. If there was a launch, we would stop classes and turn on the radio and listen to the launch. That’s how engaged the whole country was in the space race against the Soviets.”
In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. At about the size of a beach ball, Sputnik took only 98 minutes to orbit the Earth. The launch took the United States by surprise and stoked many fears that if the Soviets could launch satellites, they could also launch ballistic missiles.
The race was on.
Early in 1958, the United States launched Explorer I which discovered the magnetic belts around Earth, then in July, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which created NASA that October.
“It was just exciting stuff,” Tanner said. “During flights off of the planet, into the orbit around the Earth for the first time ever, everybody was tuned into it. I was no exception.”
He said he — along with just about every other kid at the time — was excited about the space program and was either openly or secretly hoping to be a part of it in some way.
"I had been hooked on the concept of space travel before that," Tanner said. "Starting in college ... you do a lot of original thinking when you finally get away from home. I never dreamed that I could be a real significant part of it, but I guess I wasn't dreaming big enough."
Born Jan. 21, 1950, in Danville to Drs. L.W. and Megan Tanner, Joe was taught to fly by his father at the Vermilion County Airport.
He graduated Danville High School in 1968 before heading off to earn a B.S. in engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1973.
After college, Tanner joined the Navy. He became a pilot in 1975, served as an advanced jet instructor in Florida and joined NASA in 1984 as an aerospace engineer and research pilot.
He said not only did he have the pleasure of meeting Aldrin and Armstrong, he's met almost everyone in the program — save a couple of the newer people.
In fact, Armstrong lived not far from Tanner in Colorado.
"I was going to invite him over and have him visit, but I'd have to promise not to ask him anything about landing on the moon," Tanner said with a laugh.
Tanner said he joined NASA just after the 10th launch of the shuttle and got to be on four of them himself.
He served on:
• STS-66 (Nov. 3-14,1994) — ATLAS-3 mission, which studied the atmosphere composition and solar effects of the sun’s cycle.
• STS-82 (Feb. 11-21,1997) — Tanner took two space walks to serviced the Hubble Space Telescope.
• STS-97 (Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, 2000) — The fifth shuttle mission aimed at assembling the International Space Station. Tanner participated in three space walks.
• STS-115 (Sept. 9-21, 2006) — Restarted assembly of the International Space Station. Tanner made two spacewalks totaling more than 13 hours.
He served aboard Atlantis twice, Endeavor and Discovery.
But despite the pivotal moment of the Apollo 11 crew stepping on the lunar surface 50 years ago this week, only 12 men have accomplished the feat — the last time with Apollo 17 in 1972.
Recently, Israel crashed Beresheet on the moon — the first publicly funded attempt at a soft touchdown. Only government space agencies from the Soviet Union, the United States and China have that honor. Israel had hoped to be the fourth.
"China has been talking about landing on the moon with no known timeline," Tanner said. "People throw out dates all the time."
However, the United States might be moving in that direction.
In 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to reestablish the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. Trump also signed Space Policy Directive 1. Pence announced earlier this year that NASA's moon landing goal would be moved up four years — now to 2024.
The program — Artemis — intends to once again put a man, and the first woman, on the moon.
Tanner said whether NASA hits the target date or not will depend largely on the funding, and whether the country is willing to challenge the program to accomplish its goal.
"We do things because the nation wants us to do it," Tanner said. "We canceled the last three missions of Apollo because people were tired of it. If the nation wants us to do it, wants to pay from the tax coffers to support it, then things can happen."
The country just needs a little push, and everyone looking to the skies like that Sunday in 1969.