Bilingual onboard medical manualLanguage is the lyrical heartbeat of a culture. It was also at the heart of many challenges during Shuttle-Mir. To learn to speak and read Russian, Americans had to master the strange-looking Cyrillic alphabet, train their ears and mouths to encompass awkward new sounds, and grapple with a vocabulary rich with meanings. Protocols and agreements had to be translated from English to Russian, and then back into English to make sure that translators had not skewed the information. NASA Flight Surgeons put together a bilingual, onboard medical manual so that, in an emergency, the cosmonauts and astronaut would be, in effect, "reading from the same page."

Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar said that language was the hardest part of training in Russia "because you had to learn all of these things . . . and take oral exams and sit in lectures that were only in Russian." Dunbar said the experience must be similar to a first-grader going to graduate school. 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." Then, "all of a sudden," about six months into the program, the language came together for Dunbar, when she reached a level of fluency.

The Mir astronauts had varying levels of Russian language preparation. Some began their training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California; others studied mainly at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas before moving to Russia. NASA-3 Mir Astronaut John Blaha thought that inadequate language preparation was perhaps NASA’s "biggest mistake" of the Shuttle-Mir Program, although he became comfortable with Russian while onboard Mir.

Although some people seemed to have a better knack for learning languages, NASA-5 Mir Astronaut Mike Foale attributed his relative fluency to the hours he spent working on it. In his youth, Foale’s approach to foreign language had been "fairly disdainful." But, when he learned from NASA that he was going to Russia, he had "the cold realization that I was going to have a miserable time if I didn’t learn the Russian language." He said to himself, "You have got to stop doing all those things you like doing in your free time." And, from then on, he did even his pleasure reading in Russian.

Astronaut Shannon Lucid reading a St. Petersburg paper in the Mir Space Station Base BlockNASA-2 Mir Astronaut Shannon Lucid’s crewmates, Yuri Onufriyenko and Yury Usachev, spoke no English. As Lucid’s Russian continued to improve, "We made a lot of jokes about it," according to Lucid. "Yury, as a joke, said, ‘Well, we’re developing a new language, a cosmic language.’ And, there was a fair amount of truth to that . . . because both Yuri and Yury very rapidly got to understand how I was talking.

"I mean, if a Russian teacher had been listening to me, she would have stuck her hands over her ears. But, I got the point across. Onufriyenko and Usachev never aid, ‘Oh, Shannon, just be quiet. We can’t stand to listen to your Russian anymore!’"

The news media magnified Russian "complaints" that NASA-7 Mir Astronaut Andy Thomas did not speak Russian well enough, but Thomas said that his technical Russian was fine. He wanted to work on his conversational abilities.

 Wolf reading a Russian-English dictionary Onboard Mir, the continuous and nearly exclusive use of Russian could add to an American astronaut’s sense of isolation. The communications passes were conducted nearly entirely in Russian, so this important verbal connection to the Earth could seem foreign and strange. Further, important communications could be imperiled because one language’s sounds might be hard for another’s ears to decipher. Once, NASA-3 Mir Astronaut John Blaha was training to help with his crewmates’ spacewalk. During the spacewalk, Blaha was going to have to throw some switches. As Flight Surgeon Tom Marshburn told the story, the Russian word for "on" is [vkloo-cheet], and the word for "off" is [ot-kloo-cheet], two very similar sounds.

Although Blaha was enunciating the words very precisely, the Russian ground controllers wanted to double-check. They turned to Marshburn and asked him how to say the words in English. "It’s on and off," Marshburn told them, and the Russians burst out laughing. Those two English words sounded nearly identical to the Russians’ ears. 

See the Cyrillic alphabet (PDF)

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Bilingual Blues