Of the electives we can take as PHEnOM astronaut candidates, foreign language training is proving to be the most popular. Not only will it let us be able to work with foreign-born astronauts on our projects, it will also allow us to participate in other countries’ space projects, of which there are many coming up the pipeline.
Language training will be provided soon through Rosetta, a popular language software provider. The five available options are: Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. For one elective, we are allowed to pick just two, though we can learn the others later on our own time.
I have made my choices for Spanish (definite!) and French or German (careful choice, I wasn’t too sure about it). I want to talk about my reasoning for these choices and why I declined the other options.
Spanish – There are 22 Spanish-speaking countries. Of these, at least two have their own space agencies, Mexico and Chile. Not only that, but their universities are getting into the space game as well. PHEnOM is already in talks with at least one unnamed Chilean university to start a space science research program there, as well as a few spinoff research opportunities.
Besides the Latin American countries, Spain itself is home to the European Space Astronomy Centre in Madrid. One space launch company, Zero2infinity, is based in Barcelona and is working on balloon-borne rockets (rockoons) to launch small spacecraft.
I also happen to have taken two years of Spanish in high school, and regret not taking all four years of it, nor having the opportunity to use it.
French – France is a major player in the European Space Agency. Besides its Ariane rockets, ESA has its headquarters in Paris. ESA’s official business is conducted in English and French. There might be a possibility of PHEnOM collaborating with the ESA or French universities, so knowing that language would open up the chance of me participating.
The Canadian Space Agency has its headquarters at the John H. Chapman Space Centre in Longueuil, Quebec. It also conducts its business in English and French. As a student at a Canadian university, I’m a bit interested in the possibility of PHEnOM someday being involved with the CSA.
A few countries in the ESA also speak French. They are Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
Italian – Italy has a good space program, both independently and as part of the ESA. It is home to Thales Alenia Space, a major European maker of space hardware. Some of the ISS’s modules were manufactured by Thales. However, the Italian language has limited reach outside of the country – it is only spoken as a minority in Switzerland and there are no other spacefaring countries that speak it.
Being Romance languages, Spanish and French are already similar to Italian, so I could pick it up pretty quickly after learning either or both.
German – Being the other major player in the ESA, Germany is home to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne. It performs a similar role to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, training astronauts for future missions.
It was difficult to choose between French and German as my other foreign language, but in the end I tentatively chose German because French is already similar to Spanish and has only marginal utility in countries that are either English- or German-speaking (such as Switzerland).
Russian – This may seem like an obvious choice, given Russia’s long history of human spaceflight. But I believe that Russia’s space days may be numbered. The average age of the Russian space worker is about 45, and the average space scientist’s age is about 60. There has been very little innovation in Russia’s space sector since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Combined with Russia’s long-term demographics and present economic isolation, I do not foresee a positive trend for its space program.
But on the chance that I’m wrong, even a Russian resurgence will not prevent long-term European or Latin success. It might actually help. In either case, the other languages offer an enriching and rewarding experience!