Diplomacy Through Space Station Construction

This past weekend, Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly declared International Space Station assembly to be complete.  With that, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my experiences working on the ISS for the past 12 years.

One thing that I would love for more people to understand is how international in nature this project has been.  This is truly a global achievement!  Just from my little arena in spaceflight training, we’ve worked intensively with the Japanese, Russians, Europeans, and Canadians.

We at NASA are considered the integrators for the space station program.  From a training perspective, that means we review and approve all astronaut training requirements and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfill those requirements.

This amount of collaboration requires painstaking attention to detail, thorough documentation, and, given that we all speak different languages, lots and lots of communication.  Lots.

When I was 25, I took my first trip to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.  At that point, I had never traveled outside of the country with the exception of a couple of quick trips to Canada.  But there I was with all of two years experience, meeting with my life support system counterparts.  These were men who had 30 to 40 years of experience in their field.  They had been teaching longer than I was alive and they were hosting me as an equal.

Now, I didn’t go into these discussions alone.  I was there with a couple of other colleagues, but none of us had the same experience they did.  We were there to start building a relationship, to learn how they trained things, and, most importantly, to learn something about their systems.

In the early days of the program, getting technical information from our Russian counterparts was notoriously difficult.  There was a lot of ingrained mistrust between the United States and Russia that needed to be overcome.  To overcome that, we had to get beyond stereotypes, language barriers, and cultural differences in order to do the job we needed to do.  It also helped to share a shot of vodka on occasion as a celebration of a day’s hard work.

Over the years, the relationships at the working level have improved greatly.  As we show that we’re willing to listen and discuss and not just posture and entrench, we’ve made progress.  Over that time, GCTC has also changed from a government institution to a privately run organization.

This change has also been accompanied by some military retirements and a wave of new, younger engineers on the Russian side. These younger engineers don’t carry the same ingrained mistrusts as their older compatriots do and as a result, the ability to collaborate with them has improved.

Just a couple of years after this first meeting, I was put in a leadership position on a project that required us to review detailed training requirements for all space station systems: electrical, computer, guidance, thermal, life support, communications, etc.  The intent of the project was to eliminate as much unnecessary training content as possible.  Essentially, we had to identify where we were being inefficient or rather, where their training was wrong.

We were told by many of our US coworkers, that we would never be successful, that the Europeans and Japanese had invested too much into their training to make changes, and that the Russians just wouldn’t do it.

So we gathered our first meeting, with several of us from NASA, a couple of Germans representing ESA, a couple of Japanese representatives, and a handful of Russians.

Communication was our first concern.  English and Russian are the two languages used by the program.  The Germans spoke eloquent British English and spoke with a mastery of the language that many Americans don’t have.  The Japanese had been small players in the program to this point and hadn’t had as much language training.  Communication between us was challenging.  We and the Russians had members with varying levels of understanding of each of our languages, but we would be supported by interpreters to assist there.

If you’ve ever had experience with interpretation, you know that words and terms in different languages don’t always mean the same thing.  Misunderstandings develop easily.  We had to spend some time in each meeting just coming to agreement on the definitions of certain words and picking the specific words we would use to describe things, just so we could learn to talk to each other.

The Japanese were at a greater disadvantage.  They were expected to know English and they largely did it without interpretation.  Culturally, they also had an ingrained tendency to nod yes.  To many of us that gesture meant ‘they understood and agreed’, when to them, it meant ‘they heard us’.  Extra time had to be taken to make sure that our counterparts there not only heard us but also understood.

Eventually though, we’ve been able to move beyond language and cultural barriers and have completed one of the most challenging engineering projects in history.  In so doing, we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way of how to communicate and work together.  My hope is that this will not be the last opportunity for us to do this.

For future exploration missions, I hope we can not only work with our friends at ESA, JAXA, CSA, and RSA, but also with other space agencies around the globe.  It will make things take longer and will ultimately make the project more expensive, but it would be something people around the world could take pride in.

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts