Houston, we have a hooley to celebrate

WHAT do you do when it’s your birthday and you are miles from nowhere with neither home nor hostelry in sight? Throw a party, of course, with the help of friends, family — and NASA.

That’s what American astronaut Dan Tani did yesterday and the celebrations took on the flavour of a Céilí Mór as his Irish friends and relatives threw a hooley on Earth that reached all the way to the International Space Station.

With RTÉ’s Leo Enright as master of ceremonies, Cork Institute of Technology’s new science centre, Blackrock Castle Observatory, hosted the special birthday celebration. The event, which featured a live television link-up with Mr Tani, was a blast both for the spaceman himself and the space cadets on terra firma.

When Mr Tani, who is married to a Cork woman, went into space last October, he expected to be in orbit for eight weeks and home for Christmas.

Instead he’s still stuck on the International Space Station, after trouble with the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and will not return to Earth until the end of this month.

None of that worried him yesterday, though, as he launched into what must be the first Irish Jig in space when Brian Hanlon played his bodhrán and Ger Wolfe sang Song From Earth, which he composed for the occasion.

“I’m honoured to be the first sort of Irish astronaut,” he told the cheering crowd from Cork. “I can’t wait to get home and see you all again.”

Mr Tani is married to Mary and Larry Egan’s daughter, Jane, who was watching the proceedings from her home in Houston, Texas.

His Irish in-laws had some good news for him, following the death of his mother, Rose, in a car accident just before Christmas.

Mr Tani was thrilled to hear from his mother-in-law, Mary Egan, that he had a new nephew after his brother-in-law Tom became the proud father of a baby boy. “That’s great news,” he beamed. “Give them my congratulations.”

Local schoolchildren, including Mr Tani’s nephews, were given the opportunity to talk to the NASA astronaut from the observatory’s Zenith Restaurant where the event took place. Students from Innishannon National School, St Multose, Kinsale, the Cope Foundation’s Scoil Bernadette, and St Mary’s Secondary in Macroom were there. All schools nationwide were invited to watch the event live online on NASA TV.

The musical performance at Blackrock Castle Observatory coincided with another special event that NASA is celebrating. For the first time ever, NASA will beam a song — the Beatles Across the Universe — directly into deep space.

The transmission over NASA’s Deep Space Network commemorates the 40th anniversary of the day the Beatles recorded the song, as well as the 50th anniversary of NASA’s founding and the group’s beginnings. Two other anniversaries also are being honoured: The launch 50 years ago this week of Explorer 1, the first US satellite, and the founding 45 years ago of the Deep Space Network, an international network of antennae that supports missions to explore the universe.

Clair McSweeney of Blackrock Castle Observatory said: “We were delighted to host such a fantastic celebration for Dan Tani. It provided a unique opportunity to showcase Irish culture on a universal scale. The event was unlike anything NASA has ever been involved in before and it was great to be given the opportunity to wish Dan a happy birthday.”

Peter Brabazon, programme director with Discover Science & Engineering, said: “Today’s event provided a fantastic opportunity to highlight the Irish link to space exploration. To develop as a society and economy, we need scientists and innovators who will provide the expertise and leadership which will contribute to job creation, sustained economic prosperity and advances in healthcare and environmental protection. We hope to have captured the imagination of the young people who attended the event today and those that watched from their classrooms on NASA TV. One of those watching the event might one day go on to become the first Irish astronaut.”

The celebrations were co-ordinated with split-second timing by Frances McCarthy, who acted as floor manager and was in constant contact with NASA. Although the event lasted a mere 10 minutes it had the flavour of an all-night party. There was even a Homer Simpson moment when Dan raised a crest of Ballybunion Golf Club and off it floated, weightless and free into the inner space of outer space.

Just before NASA had to pull the plug, the space cadets on earth launched into Happy Birthday to You. From the cramped Space Station, Dan blew out the virtual candles while, back on Earth, his nephews did the same job on the real thing.

Mission accomplished.

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