The final frontier

In the latest issue of The Linguist, astronaut Matthias Maurer tells Miranda Moore why learning Russian is the hardest part of his training

First published in The Linguist 56/2

In 2008, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they were looking for a new cohort of astronauts for the first time in 20 years. Eight and a half thousand people applied from across Europe, among them Tim Peake, a military pilot from the UK, and Matthias Maurer, a material science engineer from Germany. While Peake went on to become a household name in Britain, spending six months on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016, Maurer’s path to space has been more chequered.

As a child, he watched the launches of bilateral German-NASA space missions on TV, but never dared to dream it could be a future career. “It all looked so far away,” he says. “During my studies I even checked how to be an astronaut but the ESA page never showed an open position. Basically I never started to dream.” So when he heard that the agency were looking to recruit, he knew it was for him. “It combines everything that I have interest in: science, technology on the edge of what is possible, working in international teams and also the adventure – it’s a brilliant combination.”

By 2009, following a year of tests and interviews, Maurer was down to the final 10 candidates. But there were tickets for just six and he narrowly missed out, instead taking up a position as Crew Support at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. His journey to becoming an astronaut would take a further eight years: in February 2017, he was finally announced as the new ESA astronaut.

As Crew Support, Maurer gained valuable experience of launch and landing campaigns, background logistics, and communication with cosmonauts at the ISS from ground control in Munich. In 2012, he volunteered to learn Chinese following the onset of talks about a future collaboration between the ESA and China’s two space agencies: the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA). In 2015, he added Russian to his language studies – an essential requirement for travel to the ISS.

Before blasting off on his Soyuz spacecraft, Tim Peake told journalists that learning Russian had been the most difficult part of the two-year preparations for space flight – more challenging even than high g-force training. Maurer agrees. But while Peake admitted that he was “not a natural linguist” and almost gave up, Maurer has always enjoyed learning languages.

Having studied Latin, French and English at school, he decided to spend his third undergraduate year at the University of Leeds, which he describes as the “best investment I’ve made: Being in a different country, learning material science at an excellent level, and at the same time also learning a language and being immersed in that environment, I was so motivated.”

It inspired him to complete his degree through a four-nations exchange scheme, learning French and Spanish while studying in Nancy and Barcelona, and taking Italian for a semester. A traineeship in Korea after graduation brought his first brief taste of a non-European language. “Having French and English, it is then easy to add Italian or Spanish because it’s all Roman languages,” he says. “It’s completely different to learning Chinese and Russian, and I’m struggling.” Yet being able to communicate with fellow astronauts from either Russia or China will be essential to any future mission. 

Currently, the ESA only flies to the ISS, where the official languages are English and Russian. All the controls and procedures on Soyuz spacecraft are in Russian and there is always a Russian commander, so knowledge of the language is essential for the other two crew members. The Pilot must have advanced language skills, while the Flight Engineer, who has fewer duties on board, can get by with more limited Russian.

To date, no foreigner has worked on board a Chinese craft, but with the CNSA preparing to launch a space station in 2018, the first European could fly with the Chinese in 2022. “It will be very interesting to see what kind of language level we need. If the procedure is only in Chinese characters that would make it really, really difficult,” says Maurer. “Imagine there’s an emergency and you need to be very efficient, very fast, there shouldn’t be errors at all in understanding the procedure. That’s not easy if it’s only in Chinese characters.”

It may be that the CMSA (the agency responsible for this area) instead adopts a bilingual controls system, similar to those used on the European ATV cargo spacecraft. ESA astronauts are required to speak English, but as the ATV docked at the Russian part of the ISS, dual procedures in Russian and English were used. “Bilingual English-Chinese procedures could be a feasible way to work with the Chinese,” says Maurer.

Even then, he adds, learning some Mandarin would be vital. Lessons learnt on the Russian space station Mir illustrate just how important language skills are to the success of any mission, and the wellbeing of those involved. “In the early days, the American astronauts on the Mir space station had lots of problems because of cultural differences. A lot can go wrong if you don’t speak the same language and can’t understand the culture,” he explains. Living with just five other people in a confined space for six-month periods can lead to considerable tensions, never mind if you add cultural and linguistic misunderstandings to the mix.

“Having very good language skills and cultural awareness is what we Europeans want to bring into this new cooperation with the Chinese,” says Maurer. “Maybe once the cooperation is established we can reduce the efforts for learning the language. But the first generation of astronauts need to have high-level language skills to make sure there is a friendship that grows before we fly. Because you need to trust people. And to build up trust, communication is the most important part.”

As Maurer is not yet assigned to a flight, knowledge of Chinese is a “strong asset” that could put him in poll position for any bilateral flight with China. Only two other ESA astronauts have opted to learn the language. “Until it is clear which will be my path, I need to train in all the language skills,” he explains. If he works with the CNSA, his Russian lessons would stop immediately to enable him to focus fully on preparations for a flight to the Chinese Space Station. Similarly, a flight to the ISS would put an end to his Mandarin studies. Currently, he has two lessons a week with a native Chinese teacher and two with a Russian native – “but not on the same day as it confuses me”. Already fairly confident in spoken Chinese, he recently started learning the Chinese characters and is aiming to achieve level B1 in writing.

Along with all ESA staff, his language training began at the Bochum Language Institute, close to the ESA centre in Cologne. The courses are not designed exclusively for astronauts, but after intensive training of 7-10 weeks, they begin one-on-one classes at ESA, which cover the specific vocabulary required. For Chinese, he describes himself as a “guinea pig”, following a new methodology of learning through pinyin. “In seven weeks we had a language level for oral capacity that was almost good enough – very close to the B2 level,” he says. “The course is really intensive, really quick, really efficient. But then you need to master the language. It’s quickly learnt but also quickly forgotten.”

By contrast, the Russian programme is well established, with 3-4 weeks training in St Petersburg following the intensive language course, and further in-country training on the Soyuz aircraft once astronauts are assigned a flight. At first this is done through an interpreter, but as astronauts gain confidence in Russian they are expected to study without interpretation.

At this stage, it is important that the crew works closely together, as well as with the other crews they will live with on the ISS. There are always two crews at the space station, each for a six-month period, with one crew arriving to relieve another every three months. “You train with the other crews to make sure that the six people really understand each other,” says Maurer.

“In an emergency, there needs to be a common action and if you don’t understand each other you will not be effective. That’s a safety issue and an absolute no-go criteria, so you must master at least enough of the language to be able to do a proper job in an emergency.” He continues: “It’s highly important to achieve the mission objectives and therefore the team needs to work efficiently, and that requires good social dynamics, so you need language skills.”

As Maurer’s Chinese develops, helping to foster trust and understanding between the two agencies, he may be edging closer to becoming the first European to fly with the CNSA. The new cooperation with China will be a pioneering venture, and one that will put the international space agencies’ understanding of language and cultural differences and needs to the test. Maurer is certainly up for the challenge.