Peggy Whitson on the language of the International Space Station

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What’s the furthest you’ve travelled from home? Did it change your perspective? Space travel is a step (or a giant leap?) further than most of us can imagine, but global teams of astronauts make the International Space Station their home for months at a time.

Peggy Whitson astronautThe International Space Station is a perfect example of people from varied cultures combining their skills, developing as a team and showing that language isn’t a barrier when you have a common goal. So what’s the language of the space station?

I had the pleasure of speaking to Peggy Whitson, Nasa astronaut, who has not only spent 665 days in space (a current record for any US astronaut and a record for women worldwide) and served as Commander of the International Space Station, but also served as Chief of the Astronaut Office and Chairperson of the Astronaut Selection Board.

We talked about her experience learning Russian, adapting communication for different crews, the life skills she looks for in potential astronauts, and how looking out into space forever changes your perspective. Peggy, thank you for giving us a peek into the fascinating and hugely important world of space travel. It seems the sky isn’t the limit after all…

 A change of perspective

We’re all a lot more alike than we are different.

First of all, space must be one of the most spectacular views anyone’s ever seen. Has it influenced your sense of perspective do you think?

Well I think it’s very difficult to go to space and not be changed, to some degree. For me, I think the thing that changed most dramatically was perspective. I feel like looking down at the Earth, you get a whole new appreciation for what our planet is; that everyone that we know lives down there. Humanity lives there (as far as we know that’s the only place we live!). That’s our whole world, it’s basically our spaceship. Because we’re in orbit trying to build a synthetic version of home, you get this whole appreciation for what this planet provides you. I think one perspective is that we really do have to take care of and appreciate what it is we have here on Earth.

It also gives me the perspective of how special and how unique and important it is, but then at the same time you look out to the sky, and you see thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of stars, and then you realise that we’re just one of billions and billions and billions of galaxies. It’s really hard to comprehend how important on one hand it feels, and how small it is on the other hand. And so perspective I think is probably the biggest thing I came away with.

It’s pretty mind blowing when you think about it too much isn’t it!

Yes it is, it is.

It must be fascinating to be able to see that Earth is actually so tiny in the grand scheme of things, and yet we somehow have so many different languages and cultures, not to mention accents. When you have your feet firmly on Earth, do you enjoy travelling and experiencing other cultures?

Haha well, it depends, I’ve had the privilege of travelling to a lot of different countries as part of my training. The International Space Station is built by 15 different countries. For a European module we did training in Cologne, so I had the opportunity to go there. I’ve been to France also for other training events. I’ve been to Moscow Star City, Japan (Puba), as well as Montreal in Canada.

So I’ve gotten an opportunity to see a lot of other cultures and 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. 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.

I think it brings out the fact that we’re all a lot more alike than we are different. And yeah, there are different languages and cultures have different traditions and meanings, and it’s interesting to try and learn about those.

Finding common ground (through a lack of literal ground!)

You start to understand what vocabulary works that is common for everyone.

You’ve mentioned lots of places that you’ve done training and that crew members come together from many different countries. Does there tend to be a language that everyone defaults to, or do you pick up language skills along the way?

Launching and landing in a space craft we have to know Russian. We have to be able to read the displays and the procedures are all in Russian. On board the space station all the procedures are in English, as English is the general language of the station. But that’s interesting. I’ve had different crews and depending on their language capabilities as a crew, you come up with a common language. For instance, in one case I knew one of my Russian crew mates always confused Tuesday and Thursday, so I always had to distinguish between the two. So we end up kind of developing a common language that we can understand with each other.

At one point I thought I understood a lot of Russian. My commander on my first mission (I was not great in Russian at that point) would speak to me and I’d think I understand what he’s talking about; and then he’d speak to somebody else in Russian, and I wouldn’t understand any of it!

So he was adapting it to speak to different people?

Right, he used a different language that you know is common – the vocabulary is common to you. It’s very important when we do emergency procedures training, that everyone understands what you’re doing. So you have to know your crew well enough to know, ok we need to talk about this in Russian, or I need to say this in Russian as well as English. You start to understand what vocabulary works that is common for everyone and that’s very beneficial.

I’m not great at languages! I’ve been asked many times what’s the hardest thing about space flight and I say it’s learning the language.

Yep! I can understand that!

They say there’s the language side of your brain – I’m still looking for mine!

Learning language and life skills

Teaching kids to work as teams and to be good leaders, good followers, is another really important skill.

So how did you go about learning Russian? Were you very much thrown in at the deep end, learning on the job through communication with people, or did you do some study beforehand?

Because I was negotiating in Russian for many years, as part of being selected as an astronaut, I had learned a little bit. I was taking classes, but it was extremely difficult for me and I was not very good at it. And then as soon as I was selected as an astronaut, obviously it became a priority. Interestingly, luckily I had an instructor who understood that I wasn’t going to learn it by reading it, or doing these standard exercises. And she taught me how to speak it like I was a toddler. So she would just correct me and correct me and then I would say it and say it and eventually I got it, because I learned it by ear.

So if it doesn’t seem easy one way you should try a different way. Because there are lots of different ways you can learn languages out there nowadays, with computers and online. Try and find the right thing that helps you the most. I was just lucky I happened to have an instructor that figured out I was learning it by ear. I had no idea!

Brilliant, yes teachers have to adapt their teaching styles for how people are learning because no two people learn the same, so pretty tricky!

Did you find, through your training or work, that you developed skills in any areas that surprised you? You’re developing the physical skills needed to do the job, but did you improve on other things along the way that weren’t necessarily in the job description, so to speak?

Well actually, when I became Deputy Chief at the Astronaut Office it became very obvious to me that as we were moving into long duration missions, we needed to develop our communication skills and our what we call ‘soft skills’. We have thousands and thousands of applicants.

So we can get some really talented people, that are technically talented, but not always great at the ‘playing well with others’ skills. And so we actually developed a training course to give everybody the vocabulary to talk about it and become more effective at communicating those soft skills to each other. Because we were finding we were having more problems in that area than we were in technical competence. So we did actually proactively train people to communicate more effectively, on an interpersonal level.

It’s interesting that you’ve come up with that, because it’s becoming more and more important in schools and teaching materials now to integrate those ‘soft skills’ as you call them, so that children develop them along with their academic skills.

And you know, teaching kids to work as teams and to be good leaders, good followers, is also another really important skill.

You’re never too young to start developing life competencies! You’ll need them if you ever find yourself heading up to the International Space Station. We’ll leave it there for now, but Peggy and I continue our discussion in parts 2 and 3. 

Peggy Whitson on how language isn’t a barrier in space when you have a common goal
Peggy Whitson on how far life experience can get you – how about all the way to space?

We really enjoy talking to people with interesting stories about language learning, and how it’s shaped their lives and careers. We hope you enjoy reading about them and can take inspiration from their experiences. You’ve done a lot of reading just now though, so how about watching our interview with Dr. Giles Yeo?