We have an international language in space?

The Destiny laboratory on the International space station.


Today, most people leave the Earth, must do so through Russian territory. Space flyers ride on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which leaves a special package of the Russian territory in Kazakhstan. Their spaceship mission is led by a citizen of russia and a large part of their destination — the International Space Station has modules and activities in Russian, also.

This means that all the astronauts go to the ISS, regardless of how many languages they speak also need to learn Russian. And astronauts and cosmonauts around the world need to learn at least a little English to work with NASA. English is a difficult language for foreigners to learn.

We have an international space station language? Experts say that it might be time to consider it, especially since the ISS would be able to walk out of funding and wrap-up operations in 2020 and the space world is changing rapidly. China is a strong space power in the future as a partner with the Europeans, at least. And countries around the world have spoken about the landing of man on Mars, the other major effort that would likely need international cooperation to succeed. [Baikonur of reflection: The Life-Changing Experience to Witness a Soyuz Rocket Launch]

The US state Department’s Foreign Service Institute has a scale for English speakers to understand the difficulty of learning a language. The department ranks Russian between the “Category II” languages, such as Greek, Icelandic, Croatian and English, with “significant language and/or cultural differences from English. To achieve a reasonable degree of fluency in the Russian language, the students can expect to spend 1,100 class hours plus many hours of individual study time. The comparison between 575 and 600 hours for languages such as French, Spanish, Dutch, and Afrikaans.

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Even astronauts speak about the Russian language is difficult. Denmark’s first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, once said that learning Russian was his biggest challenge as he trained for an International space station mission. Former NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar also described the difficulties of learning Russian as they are prepared to live on the Russian space station Mir. For her first six months of training, even though “you knew the answer, you didn’t know how to say in Russian. For about six months, I felt like a little child,” she said in an interview on NASA’s website.

The NASA astronauts participating in Mir in the 1990s had different levels of language, training, and tend to do better with more exposure to Russian, said Megan Ansdell, a postdoctoral researcher in planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley. She wrote in 2012, Space Policy paperexploring the merits of an international language in the area. “The astronauts have often complained about inadequate language training, and all agree that it is better Russian competence that is necessary for a safe operation on the Mir,” she told by e-mail.

“Another problem was the communication with ground troops, who only spoke English or Russian; this led to operational inefficiencies, such as the need to repeat multiple communications with the ground crew or miscommunication of the information when working through translators.”

The situation is much better for the current NASA astronauts, who have years of training in Russian and even take part in home stays with Russian families to become more familiar with the language. But having two ISS languages brings operational inefficiencies, Ansdell said. “This has worked, but led to concerns about the safety and the efficiency/cost of station operations due to the dependency on translators in the mission control centers. In addition, the implicit requirement on the height of the English and Russian can limit the workforce pool for space station partners whose first language is neither of the two,” she said. [30 Years Later: The Legacy of the Mir space station]

Choosing a different language

But choosing a different language is not so simple. The ISS is regulated in part through memoranda of understanding, English is normally spoken language, but there are important exceptions (such as when in the Russian Soyuz). Astronauts can operate in their own language in the space when speaking with their own ground staff, but they need to know at least enough English to “get by,” said Michael Dodge, an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota, who specializes in space law and policy.

“The choice of an international space station, the language can easily fall into one of the two pathways. For example, it can be a thorny issue entangled in geopolitical affairs. Or, it can be much easier than one might think, because there are precedents in place already for a variety of missions,” he told by e-mail.

“There is already an international precedent in choosing one language for operational necessity, in both the aviation and in the space. In aviation, the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization] has already recommended, and since then, continue to study, the use of English as the so-called language of aviation. The reason behind this is that all of the operators, the ATC [air traffic control] personnel to the pilots and crew on board, all speaking the same language, which makes their ability to do their work safely. There have been incidents where a language barrier has contributed to accidents and fatalities.”

Even if a location, such as the ISS has an official language, the use of other, he observed; various space law treaties (including the outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement) say there are several valid legal languages for the aerospace industry.

Dodge added that on the ISS, it is unlikely that as a major new participant came on board (such as China) that there is a major change in the language of the policy, mainly because of these reasons of safety. But Chinese can be the language of choice in other situations, he said.

On a Chinese-led Mars mission, for example, the participation of other countries, the obligation to speak in Mandarin or Cantonese. “Practical, but English is used already in the cooperative international agreements such as the ISS, it feels most likely that it would be chosen for the language of the space, in the same way as for the language of the aviation industry,” Dodge said.

Although there is still much discussion about which language to use, Ansdell lawyers to talk to the astronauts to decide which language is best for the safety and comfort of the crew. As the space crews proceed in the solar system, they feel more isolated and the language is even more important, ” she said.

“One thing that struck me while looking back through these issues was the social aspect of the language,” Ansdell said. “Language is clearly influenced crew integration: if you can’t communicate, you’re isolated, and that is not a good thing on a long space mission to Mars. Also, the further you are from the Earth, the longer the delay in communication back to the ground; this is a fact that we are still not around, which makes it even more important for the communication as efficient as possible.”

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