Interview with Colonel Jeremy Hansen of the Canadian Space Agency
This interview was originally posted on careersinlanguage.com.au — an old side project to promote foreign language subjects for high school students.
With the establishment of the Australian Space Agency as of July 1st, 2018, Careers in Language not only wanted to celebrate a new career path for Australian students, but also to acknowledge that language does play a role in becoming an astronaut!
The International Space Station (ISS) has two official languages; English and Russian. All astronauts are expected to have a working proficiency in both languages, and there are currently five space agencies working on the ISS; NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA.
We spoke to Colonel Jeremy Hansen of the Canadian Space Agency, one of two Canadians set to head up to the ISS.
Jeremy joined a program called Air Cadets, which lead to him joining the Royal Canadian Air Force, getting a Bachelor of Science in Space Science and a Masters of Science in Physics (his research focus was Wide Field of View Satellite Tracking) from the Royal Military College in Kingston, and becoming a CF-18 fighter jet pilot, achieving the rank of Captain.
In 2009, Jeremy applied for the space program, got it, and has since been promoted to Colonel. While working on Earth, Jeremy serves as Capcom at Mission Control, communicating between the ground and the ISS. His work has also seen him work with the European Space Agency’s CAVES program where he lived underground for nine days, and he was a crew member of NEEMO 19 where he spent seven days on the ocean floor. All of these activities are held to simulate deep space environments.
Jeremy says he knew when he signed up for the CSA role that it’d include learning Russian, but that at the time he didn’t realise how big that task would be.
CiL: How would you describe your level of Russian now?
Jeremy: Yeah my level of Russian now is very functional, I’m not fluent at all, but I can function in society, I can take classes and you know, the rocket systems or space station systems, I did my exams in Russian, but if you put me in a social situation, it’s very likely I could not have the vocabulary to carry it … it’s more a matter of being functional.
CiL: So your language classes mostly focus on functional terms and space vocabulary?
Jeremy: Yeah, yeah exactly. So I haven’t been over to Russia now in a number of years but I was there when I was learning, we spent one month there. I was learning everything about the space station in Russian, learning about the rocket in Russian, and of course you can have the use of translators but if you can progress beyond being reliant on them, I think the better off you are as an astronaut and a colleague.
CiL: For the astronauts that are on the International Space Station, how much do they use Russian and foreign language and is that different to the people on the ground?
Jeremy: Yes, it is, we have two official languages in the International Space Station and program if you will, and two expected languages, that’s English and Russian. And so everybody speaks those languages, including the Russians speaking Russian and we all speak Russian, but you kind of just converse in whatever language suits you for day to day operations. So a lot of people will make an effort to speak both languages when they’re up there. For example, even on the ground we do the same thing. I was walking through the parking lot yesterday, I ran into a Russian cosmonaut who was leaving the building and we had a conversation, it was me speaking Russian, he was speaking English. So I think we all try to get a little better in our second or third language.
Canada has two official languages, English and French, and most Canadian children are taught both languages either at home or in school. Speaking of his own early education, Jeremy says he learned French in elementary and high school but during that time never actually met a native speaker.
Jeremy credits his French language education in his early years as an advantage to learning a foreign language as an adult. He describes his adult experience as a “constant challenge” but has found that it becomes more enjoyable once he built a foundation.
Jeremy: At this point it’s a lot more fun with a language now that I have a base I can start consuming some media in that language.
CiL: Any movie recommendations?
Jeremy: Well I was watching The Martian in Russian.
CiL: Any advice for someone who’s going to learn French or Russian?
Jeremy: When I started astronaut training and was learning Russian, I had the benefit of this being my third language and others that were in the classes, this was their second language and there was a level of confidence for me, I knew I could learn the language, even being in my 30s, I knew there wasn’t going to be a problem, I had already learned a language. I knew up front I wasn’t intimidated by the fact that, or that feeling of “I’m really not good at this”. I could barely hold a conversation, it’s almost embarrassing to try. It was easier for me to push through that and keep going, whereas someone who was learning that as their second language, they were like “I’m not sure I can do this”, there was a level of uncertainty, that maybe “I’m not mentally equipped”.
My advice is just to understand that you absolutely can. It’s simply a matter of pushing through and a desire to get it done.
On getting started he also added
Jeremy: For me, the initial overhead is pretty significant. It’s not like you can put in 50 hours and you’re good to go. For me, it’s a few hundred hours and anything less than that ends up being useless unless I get to that point where I’m, oh now I’m actually functional and I’m using and I’m cementing it and I’m seeing value.
CiL: Has there ever been a time in your personal life where knowing French or Russian has surprisingly had a benefit for you?
Jeremy: There are many, you know, being a father of three children and enabling them to learn a second language — they’re all learning French — and watching them use that in hindsight shows me that actually as a parent it’s a huge enabler, understanding the benefits of it , being able to pass along my personal experiences to my children, I think it’s helped enable that which I think is quite important for them and their future.
CiL: Some parents don’t see foreign languages as useful, especially in English dominant countries, like Australia. What’s your opinion as a parent?
Jeremy: Parents think that learning music is important, I find that quite often that it’s socially accepted that music is an important thing, or the arts of some form. And from my perspective now looking back at it, language is simply another facet, it’s another art, it’s another skill. For me when I learned French it was just a second language and then when I learned Russian it became very clear to me that that was a centre of my brain that I was using — it was the same centre that I used to learn French — but there’s a lot of confusion in the beginning between French and Russian. Now I’m convinced that it’s just part of a well balanced development, just to challenge yourself with a second language I think it’s a huge skillset. And well equipped children.
Of course we couldn’t let Jeremy go without also talking about the new Australian Space Agency, and what this means for all the young people who can now grow up with the dream of becoming an astronaut and actually being able to achieve that.
Alongside mentioning the opportunities it opens up to children for becoming astronauts, Jeremy also spoke about what it means for the country, and the team of workers needed to support the people in space.
Jeremy: I think it has to do with setting big goals for a country and setting an example. It’s important to set big goals and take on big challenges and I think Australia and your citizens are going to reach significant benefits because it’s not just an astronaut that goes to space,If it was just one person going to space I would have been there a long time ago. It’s an entire team of people that set big goals and come together and work together to create solutions. And that’s what you’re going to reap from opening up a space agency. I think it’s pretty exciting, something that we talk a lot about in Canada, how much we’ve attained that our space program and people, and how important it is to keep doing the same. So I’m pretty excited for Australia and Australia’s youth.
CiL: What would you say to a someone that was really young and said I want to be an astronaut?
Jeremy: There are a few things, three things, really.
One is It’s really obvious, academics are important. You’re going to need to continue your studies and also find something that you’re passionate about, you love, you want to learn about every single thing about and follow that. Don’t take something that you think you need to be an astronaut, take what you’re passionate about, that’s important.
And then the second big thing is the challenge. Academics are important but you also have to be pushing yourself. So, for me I was in a youth program called Air Cadets which taught me leadership, it taught me how to fly, there are other programs out there. Sports, getting involved in your school, a scouting program in North America I know there are some programs in Australia. Something that gets you out of your house and a little bit outside your comfort zone from time to time.
And then the third thing is learning to be a good citizen of the world. We’re not going to pick somebody as an astronaut to be in a tin can with a group of people for six months to two years if they don’t know how to take care of other people. You need to be a good team player and have empathy to other people and so learning to take care of others and work as a group is actually an extraordinarily important skill set for an astronaut.