Peggy Whitson Official EMU Portrait, 2009. Via Wikimedia Commons.

by Lauren Pitts


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 and the 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.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Peggy Whitson, Nasa astronaut, who has spent 665 days in space, served as Commander of the International Space Station and as Chief of the Astronaut Office and Chairperson of the Astronaut Selection Board.

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?
I think it’s very difficult to go to space and not be changed. For me, I think the thing that changed most dramatically was perspective. Looking down at the Earth, you get a whole new appreciation for what our planet is. 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 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. When you have your feet firmly on Earth, do you enjoy travelling and experiencing other cultures?
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.

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 that have different traditions and meanings, and it’s interesting to try and learn about those.

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 spacecraft 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. I’ve had different crews and depending on their language capabilities as a crew, you come up with a common language.

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!

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.

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.

Did you find, through your training or work, that you developed skills in any areas that surprised you?
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 ‘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.

How do you establish a bond within the team when you’re all from different backgrounds and cultures?
The International Space Station has been running now for twenty years and I think the legacy of the space station is the fact that it is done internationally. It is technically complex and it does require our crews to interact as a team, together, and a mission is going to be fine. You’re going to have your common goals that everybody’s going to be working toward. Everyone will have their special skills and talents that they’re offering to the team. And as long as everyone feels they have purpose and drive and they are contributing, I don’t really see that there’s going to be a problem. We’ve demonstrated that clearly on the International Space Station in my mind.

Did you find that it was a way to learn about other cultures?
It’s a process, it’s part of what you all learn about on your trip. You’re going to Mars and it’s going to take you six or seven months to get there; you’re going to learn some of these things. You just have to be open minded and aware enough to be asking the questions and to hear the answers and to share your cultures’ differences and likenesses. You might have a same superstition, but it has different meanings. It’s fun to try and explore those things, as long as you’re open enough to the idea that nobody’s right or wrong.

I think one perspective is that we really do have to take care of and appreciate what it is we have here on Earth.

What is it about science and space that’s been the driving force behind you putting so much into your career?
I was inspired at a very young age and it’s just what has interested me my whole life. I was nine when the astronauts walked on the moon. And then I graduated from high school the year they picked the first female astronauts at NASA. And my dream became a goal and I was naïve enough to try and do it and stubborn enough to stick with it for the ten years’ worth of rejection. You know it’s hard to explain what seems almost insane! I’ve just always been driven to do it.

What qualities would you look for in potential astronauts, aside from the obvious technical ability and knowledge?
I would look for people who’ve had a diverse set of life experiences. People who’ve had to adapt to different situations and deal with people from different cultures. Those are going to be folks that have been through the process before and are probably more likely to ensure success when you throw them in the situations that we do when they’re selected as astronauts. Or you know, something that’s different. Whether they went over to Antarctica, or they did a tonne of travel or whatever it might be that sets them apart. There are all different kinds of things that we look for that show that people are adaptable. Because you have to adapt to a whole new environment when you go to space.

What kind of skills, inside or outside the classroom, would you encourage students and teachers to be focusing on at that young age?
Teamwork and communication skills are really important; being able to work collaboratively. You need to work together, figure out how to work together effectively.

Also, I think one bit of advice I always try to give young people is try to challenge yourself to live a little bit beyond what you’re comfortable doing. I never dreamed of being the Chief of the Astronaut Office and I became the Chief because I continuously challenged myself to do things that I wasn’t sure I would’ve succeeded at, but I wanted to try. And I think people need to understand that, yeah you can always take the easy way out, but you’re never going to find out what you’re really truly capable of if you don’t challenge yourself.

Would you encourage students today to learn a language?
I would, and I would tell them oh gosh it was so hard for me, so please do it while you’re young!

Finally, do you think (or like to think) there’s more life out there, as in larger life than bacteria? Are there people walking around somewhere else?
I think when you look at the numbers, there will definitely be life. I don’t know that it’ll look like us, but there’s definitely going to be life and I hope someday we can find it and make some new friends.

Yes I hope so too! I’m just waiting for someone to discover it. So if they do discover it, hypothetically, what kind of language do you think our friends will speak?
Oh my goodness! I think that’s the one thing that you’ll have to keep a really open mind about because how we communicate is quite possibly very unique. Another language might be all sign language, or body language, or mental telepathy. You never know, it could be anything!  


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Lauren Pitts, Marketing Executive, Cambridge University Press. The World of Better Learning blog of Cambridge University Press.

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