Tomorrow, July 20th 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings, which saw American astronaut Neil Armstrong make history by becoming the first person to walk on the Moon.
Amidst the geopolitical tension of the Cold War and a fiercely competitive ‘Space Race’, in which the US and the Soviet Union vied to achieve the upper hand in spaceflight capability, NASA was at the time an understandably insular organisation. Its crews were all-American and therefore communication was solely in English.
Had Armstrong been an astronaut today however he would have almost certainly needed to be proficient in Russian. Without access to translation services in space, astronauts are required to be competent in speaking and understanding the language.
Since the launch of the International Space Station (ISS) 20 years ago, knowledge of Russian has been essential for every astronaut, cosmonaut or space tourist who has visited what is currently our planet’s only habitable artificial satellite.
The ISS – essentially a low Earth orbit research laboratory – is a joint venture between the five participating space agencies of the US, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada. The official working language aboard the station is English.
However, since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle programme in 2011, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way of travelling to the ISS. And since all its controls are in Russian, every astronaut must learn the language.
Russian aboard the space station
Each crew of the Soyuz consists of three people: one Russian, one foreign (most often American), and an additional crew member, who is sometimes a space tourist. The commander of the Soyuz is always Russian, while the foreign astronaut becomes the commander of the space station.
The foreign astronaut, who is also a co-pilot of the Soyuz, must be able to communicate in Russian for the entire six hours of the ascent, since the mission control centre near Moscow gives commands in Russian.
Using an interpreter would simply take too long, especially as the further you get from Earth, the longer the delay in communication.
Once aboard the ISS, the crew communicates in a mixture of English and Russian, so astronauts must be fluent in one of those languages and have a high degree of competency in the other.
Learning the lunar lingo
Astronauts who are not native to Russia must speak a good standard of Russian if they are to spend time on the ISS. NASA astronauts, after passing an ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) course in the language, continue to learn the lingo in Russia and have been known to spend time living with local families to become even more proficient.
Most importantly, though, they must learn the technical language necessary for the role. After all, commands like "monitor propellant consumption" and "equalise the pressure" are not the kind of thing you find in your average Russian phrase book alongside “How are you today?” and “Where are the toilets?”
This is done at Star City, Russia’s cosmonaut training facility, near Moscow.
More complicated than rocket science?
Several astronauts who have been to the ISS, or completed the training for it, have talked about the difficulty of attaining Russian fluency, with one even saying it was the toughest part of his preparation.
Denmark's first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, who visited the ISS in 2015, said that learning Russian was his biggest challenge. Former NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar also described the difficulties of learning Russian while training for a mission to the Mir Russian space station in the 1990s.
Talking about her training in an interview published on NASA’s website, she said that although "you knew the answer, you didn't know how to say it in Russian. For about six months, I felt like a small child.”
British astronaut Tim Peake, who spent seven months inside the ISS between 2015 and 2016, told the Telegraph shortly before leaving Earth that it was the “single most difficult aspect of my training. I love systems, I love diagrams, I’m not a natural linguist and Russian for me has been particularly hard.”
The future of space language
Do we need an official international space language? This could be a question that needs addressing in the next few years since the future of the ISS is not guaranteed (funding could run out in the 2020s) and China is emerging as a future space power.
Also, several countries, including China, are competing to be the first to send a manned mission to Mars, a huge project that would likely require international collaboration to succeed.
If Chinese does eventually become the language of space, then future astronauts might well look back enviously on their forebears who had the “easy” task of learning Russian.