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.
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
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.
the Cyrillic alphabet (PDF)