The days of Sputnik and Laika feel like ancient history by now, but the legacy set by the Space Race is still very much alive today. Aboard the International Space Station, where space agencies — from the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and various countries in Europe — convene, the two main languages in use are English and Russian. Coincidentally (or not), they’re the languages of the former Cold War rivals.
But language on the International Space Station becomes an increasingly complicated and urgent matter when you consider how high the stakes can get. Smooth communication isn’t just a matter of all the astronauts getting along on what are surely long and claustrophobic missions. It can also be a matter of life and death — of successfully landing a spacecraft or avoiding an accident.
As a complex multinational operation, the ISS serves as an interesting case study for collaboration between multiple languages and cultures. Here’s how it works.
What Happens Aboard The International Space Station?
The International Space Station is crewed by a multinational coalition of five space agencies: the United States’ NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, Canada’s CSA, Japan’s JAXA and Europe’s ESA. To date, it’s been visited by astronauts from 18 countries, and there are facilities around the world that support its operation. Behind this accord is a complex web of government treaties and agreements. According to NASA, “the ISS has been the most politically complex space exploration program ever undertaken.”
The ISS is a home for astronauts, as well as a working research laboratory and testing site for spacecraft that might eventually send humans even farther into space one day. Since the first crew arrived, there have been humans living in space every day, and the research being done there is helping us better understand the long-term effects of living in space.
Language On The ISS
In order to keep it all running smoothly, it’s required that everyone who travels to the ISS has a working knowledge of English, but that’s only once you’re there.
While SpaceX — a privately owned company — recently made its first trip to the ISS from American soil in over a decade, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has been the only mode of transportation into space for years prior to that. Astronauts need to speak Russian at an intermediate-high level for the purposes of getting there and back, because all the procedures and labels are written in Russian on the Soyuz.
Though the commander of the Soyuz is always Russian, the astronaut sitting to their left has to duplicate the commander’s actions the whole way there, which means they have to be able to understand and respond to Mission Control Center giving commands in Russian for hours. It would simply be too time-consuming and inefficient for an interpreter to translate it all back to them.
That being said, there are many languages one can encounter aboard the International Space Station. According to Clayton C. Anderson, a former resident of the ISS in 2010, “At times one could probably have heard Japanese, Italian, French, German, Russian, English, and even Portuguese (and astronaut Tracy Caldwell-Dyson probably used some sign language too!).”
What’s more, it shouldn’t be assumed that English and Russian will remain the two main working languages of the ISS forever. There’s some speculation that the ISS could run out of funding in the near future, that China’s agency will play a bigger role in the international space scene, and that new coalitions will form as efforts to reach Mars intensify.
Runglish And Other Cultural Adaptations
Of course, long periods of isolation coupled with a need for cooperation between various language populations is a recipe for all kinds of pidgins, which are a kind of makeshift language that serves as a linguistic bridge between two different languages.
Because of the ubiquity of English on the international stage, a number of English-esque hybrids (that we’ve dubbed “glishes“) have sprung up around the world. One of these is Runglish (Russian + English), which you’ll hear spoken in Russian immigrant communities in English-speaking countries as well as aboard the International Space Station, where this “space creole” had the opportunity to flourish. NASA even listed it as one of the languages used by the first crew to visit the ISS in 2000.
Beyond language adaptations, there’s a certain amount of cultural fluidity that occurs in space as well.
Though astronauts are briefed on cultural differences before traveling into space, astronaut Janice Voss attested to the fact that there’s a lot of mutual effort being made to learn one another’s customs and adapt to one another. For instance, Americans might make an effort to bow to their Japanese crew members, and Japanese astronauts might make an effort to shake hands. Other astronauts might also learn to honor their Russian colleagues’ need for shared mealtimes and face-to-face bonding, even if it doesn’t feel as personally important to them.
“Because of the International Space Station, I think we are very used to the fact that other crew members are from different cultures and trying to understand different cultures is very important to us,” said NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, a former commander of the International Space Station in a Cambridge University Press interview. “Because we have to work as a team. We are counting on our crew mates to save our lives on a bad day and vice versa. It’s a different level of trust that’s required for you to live in a place like that.”