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Language in Space: An Interview with Alla, Founder of The Mars Generation

By RoseE Hadden | Published: April 10, 2018

Some careers aren’t just global—they’re out-of-this-world! To learn more, we talked with aspiring astronaut Abigail Harrison, founder of The Mars Generation: a nonprofit organization that works to build excitement about the exploration of outer space. Although Abigail is known online as Astronaut Abby, to her friends at Lesnoe Ozero she's still just AllaAlla took some time to share her insights on language careers all over the galaxy.

Alla, how much Russian do you need to know before travelling to space? Are you close to reaching that mark? 

You have to be able to understand and reply clearly in stressful situations. You also need a very specific, highly technical vocabulary set. I still have a ways to go before I would be comfortable with my Russian in an emergency situation.

What opportunities have you had to use your Russian here on Earth?

A surprising number! Two years ago, I spent a month doing biological research on Lake Baikal in Siberia. The next year, I lived in Wellesley College’s ‘Russian Village,’ where students speak Russian on a daily basis. This past winter, I spent three weeks at the Russian State University for the Humanities doing an intensive spoken language program. Also, whenever I meet astronauts nowadays I can converse with them in two languages, which is great fun.

The Mars Generation boasts three astronauts on its advisory board—Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Captain Kent Rominger, and Captain Wendy Lawrence—along with many other specialists in STEM and education. How did you connect with these extraordinary people?

I’d been in the space and education industry for about five years before starting the Mars Generation, talking unabashedly about the dreams and goals that I have. That kind of confidence and excitement attracts a lot of people. When we launched the Mars Generation, I received incredibly positive responses. It doesn’t hurt that the Mars Generation is a very wholesome organization—it’s easy to get behind building a better future for young people. Everyone who works with the Mars Generation is so passionate about education and their support has been essential to our success.

You’re currently studying astrobiology and Russian at Wellesley College. Are you able to combine these two fields to prepare to work with Russian astrobiologists in the future?

Oh, absolutely! A major facet of my education has been adapting subjects to include space exploration. I’ve researched topics like politics of American/Soviet competition in space or the steps necessary to launch a Soyuz [spacecraft]. However, I think the best example was the summer I spent in Siberia doing biology research. The opportunity to work with Russian researchers was phenomenal.

In the summer of 2016, you returned to Lesnoe Ozero to be part of several days of space-themed Russian learning. Can you tell us about that experience?

Lesnoe Ozero villagers work on landing pods for eggs
Lesnoe Ozero villagers work on a "landing
module" for Laika the Egg, on its journey 
from the Sankt-Petersburg balcony.

I was ecstatic to return to Lesnoe Ozero, where my love for Russian was born. It was especially wonderful to share my excitement for astronomy and space with the students at camp. Some of the activities I was involved in included space-based games, launch skits, and even an informal space-themed conversational hour. I would love to start a stargazing class. During my time in Russia, I’ve had a couple conversations about Russian folk astronomy and was absolutely fascinated. I believe that the way that our ancestors viewed the stars—and the stories they passed down—can teach us a lot. Russia has a really rich history, and with its multitude of diverse ethnic groups, the people’s relationship to the stars is indescribably fascinating.

Villagers to check to see whether Laika the egg survived its drop.
A safe landing for Laika the Egg! 
Welcome home, cosmonaut!

Space travel requires many more people than just astronauts. What other kinds of jobs are available in the pursuit of space travel, and what kinds of language skills are valuable for people who do those jobs?

Any job that you can imagine is important to space exploration. The industry includes all of the jobs that you would expect—astronaut, aerospace engineer, astrophysicist, chemist, electrical engineer, mathematician, computer programmer—but it also includes lots of arts and humanities careers, such as photography, publicity, writing, art, public relations, education, finances, politics and activism, or language instruction. Being multilingual is helpful in a lot of these areas. Space exploration is something that we do as humanity rather than as individual countries, and this requires a lot of fluency, both in language and in culture.

What do you imagine the language community on Mars will look like?

I see it being very similar to what we see at the International Space Agency: English will be the official and primary language. However, other languages—including Russian—will likely be spoken between astronauts and cosmonauts, during training in different countries, and during communications with ground control stations.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Alla! We'll see you on Mars!

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