Student Features

Celebrating Our Differences

Differences of nationality and culture, as well as being isolated for months at a time on the International Space Station can raise astronauts' stress level. Before astronauts travel into space, they're briefed on the cultural differences they may encounter with crewmembers from other countries. The list of possible conflicts has grown shorter and shorter as the years have passed, notes astronaut Janice Voss. Voss traveled on the Space Shuttle with Russian cosmonaut Vladamir Titov as they conducted a Mir flyby on STS-63 in 1995. Voss and Titov also worked with Gerhard Thiele from Germany and Mamoru Mohri from Japan on mission STS-99 in 2000.

Astonaut Janice Voss
Astonaut Janice Voss
"We all have cultural biases that form our heritage," Voss says, "but everyone involved in the space program is making great efforts to learn the customs of other nations, and in particular, of Western life. They all try to remember these things, and try to adapt to other cultures. We learn general tips, though. Japanese generally don't shake hands, but bow slightly when meeting someone new. This is hard to get used to because bowing isn't an American habit. It's just as likely, however, to see a Japanese person extend a hand to shake, now, because he is trying to remember American customs."

The Russian culture has placed great emphasis on personal bonding, and a handshake and arm around the shoulder are highly valued forms of communication. Meals are events to be shared, and turning down an offering of food or drink can be highly insulting. Russians value face-to-face interaction instead of memos and large gatherings.

ISS Expedition One crew members (from left) Yuri Gidzenko, Bill Shepherd, and Sergei Krikalev show their balancing talents on the station.
ISS Expedition One crew members (from left) Yuri Gidzenko, Bill Shepherd, and Sergei Krikalev show their balancing talents on the station.
Japanese astronauts rarely use chopsticks in space, Voss notes. Using chopsticks relies on gravity, and in space, microgravity works against this. "Manipulating a noodle with chopstick requires draping the noodle over the stick," says Voss. "And in microgravity, noodles don't drape. You'll see the majority of the space crew using forks and spoons, regardless of their country of origin."

The most obvious obstacle might appear to be the language barrier, but Voss says that's one of the most easily remedied challenges. "When language is an issue, you notice it right away, and you make efforts to speak slower, or use simpler phrases," she says. Language is one thing, but cultural use of language is another. Voss says that while someone from another country may speak impeccable English (the language of choice on space missions), a joke or bit of slang may cause confusion. "If you don't know the cultural references, you can't get the point of a joke," Voss says.

Americans aren't any different from other crewmembers when it comes to idiosyncrasies that are culturally based. Voss was reminded of this by a telephone call. "We were in a meeting on the Space Shuttle, and my telephone rang," she says. "Without thinking, I took the call, kept it short, and returned to the meeting. Gerhard, a fellow astronaut from Germany, soon received a call. He let the phone ring, and ring, and ring. He didn't answer it. I asked him why, and he said that to do so would have been incredibly rude to the other people in this meeting. I said, 'but I do it all the time,' and he replied, 'yes, and it makes me uncomfortable every time.' So, I got a fast lesson in reverse cultural awareness."

Dr. Nick Kanas, professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and Associate Chief of Mental Health Services at the San Francisco Department of Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, and his colleagues found that U.S. and Russian astronauts differed in what they found to be stressful space situations.

It's hard to determine, however, what brought on these complaints. "On Mir, the U.S. astronauts were in the minority, and Russian was the spoken language. There was one American and two Russians at all times, so the American crewmember could have easily felt isolated culturally. Other countries have studied English for decades, so their fluency in speaking and understanding our language is often much more inclusive than when Americans try to merge with other cultures."

Mir wasn't as pleasant a physical environment as the International Space Station (ISS), Kanas notes. The dreary conditions could have easily affected crew morale. The possible factors for American dissatisfaction on Mir -- cultural isolation and dreary environment -- might not be as prevalent on ISS. English is the main language, crew diversity is much greater, and ISS is a spacious, new facility.

Cosmonaut Boris V. Morukov(left) working with astronauts Ed Lu(center) and Scott Altman(right).
Cosmonaut Boris V. Morukov(left) working with astronauts Ed Lu(center) and Scott Altman(right).
Kanas's research partners have proposed a training module to NASA that will focus on psychosocial issues to help astronauts cope with and prevent problems that take place in space. The on-ground simulator would work in conjunction with videotaped reminders that can be watched on the actual space mission.

It helps to bring an attitude of cooperation into space, Voss says. "We don't look at it as though we're all from different countries trying to get along. We see us all as people from Earth, living together in space. We all bring our heritage with us, but it doesn't have to present a barrier to working and living effectively together in space."

Courtesy of NASA's Spaceflight Enterprise
Published by NASAexplores: September 20, 2001