NASA in Russia: Science Degrees and Careers in Russia

Published: January 30, 2011

Mark Bowman is the Manager of Moscow Technical Liaison Office (MTLO), the Deputy Director of the Human Space Flight Program-Russia (HSFP-R), in addition to serving as an attache with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He combined an education in science with a passion for learning about other cultures and languages.

Official photo from the ISS website. Note that pictured are two Russians and one American.

SRAS: For those who are complete laymen – why does NASA maintain a Moscow office? What exactly does the Moscow office do and how large is it?

Mark Bowman: To address the “why,” allow me to give you a bit of history. Most people do not realize that space is one of the areas in which cooperation between the U.S. and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) has been the longest and most fruitful. As far back as the early 1960s, when we were fully engaged in the “space race” to land a human on the moon, the US and the Soviet Union signed cooperative agreements on the uses of space for meteorology, communications, magnetic surveys, and life sciences. Since 1971 NASA has had active working groups engaged with its Soviet and Russian counterparts in the life sciences, earth and planetary sciences, and other disciplines. In 1992 the U.S. and Russia signed an agreement on human space flight cooperation, re-establishing a partnership in this area that had been largely dormant since the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. This agreement established the Shuttle-Mir program, in which a NASA astronaut flew on a Soyuz rocket to and lived aboard the space station “Mir,” and Russian cosmonauts flew on the Space Shuttle. In 1993 a follow-up agreement was signed that expanded the Shuttle-Mir program (ultimately, seven NASA astronauts lived aboard Mir before it was taken out of service) and invited Russia to join the International Space Station (ISS) Program as a partner. As a result of the 1992 and 1993 agreements, NASA has had a continuous presence in Moscow since 1993.

As for the second part of the question, there are actually a number of NASA offices in and around Moscow. The oldest is a small office in the U.S. Embassy called the NASA Moscow Liaison Office (NMLO), which serves as NASA Headquarters’ official representation in Russia. This office reports to the U.S. ambassador to keep him informed of NASA activities here, and fills the liaison role with Russian aerospace community for a wide range of NASA programs and activities in Russia, including cooperation in aeronautics research, life sciences, earth observation, astronomy, planetary science, and exploration. Because of the size and scope of the ISS Program, a second NASA organization was created in 1998 to oversee all activities related to the ISS in Russia. This larger organization, the Human Space Flight Program – Russia (HSFP-R), has offices at the Russian Space Agency building in Moscow; northeast of Moscow in the city of Korolev; at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, east-northeast of Moscow; and a satellite office at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (only occupied during launch preparations). The HSFP-R comprises a wide variety of functions, including:

  • Liaison between engineering and technical teams at NASA and in the Russian aerospace community regarding the ISS and Russian space vehicles and systems;
  • Oversight and coordination of the training of U.S. astronauts on Russian vehicles and systems;
  • Coordination between flight control teams in the Mission Control Center – Houston (MCC-H) and the Mission Control Center – Moscow (MCC-M);
  • Interpretation, translation, transportation, lodging and logistics support for NASA teams working in and visiting Russia.

All together, the NASA team includes 15 Americans (9 NASA civil servants and 6 contractors) residing permanently in Russia (12 in Moscow and 3 in Star City), plus approximately 60 locally engaged staff members (Russian nationals). In addition, there are typically about 15 more Americans (a mixture of NASA civil servants – including astronauts – and contractors) staying in Moscow and Star City on rotations of three to six months, and at any given time there may be as many as 20 to 40 more short-term travelers visiting for meetings lasting from a couple days to several weeks.

SRAS: Wow, our involvement in Russia is certainly extensive. How closely integrated/interdependent would you say America’s and Russia’s Space Programs are?

A soyuz rocket taking off from Baikonur. Photo taken by Mark Bowman.
A soyuz rocket taking off from Baikonur. Photo by Mark Bowman.

Mark Bowman: In the International Space Station Program, we are highly integrated and extremely interdependent and each side brings unique capabilities that are in some cases complementary and in some cases provide valuable redundancy (backup capability), resulting in a more robust program. For example, the U.S. Space Shuttle is an extremely capable, but highly complex vehicle that carries large components of the Space Station (including Russian cargo elements) that cannot be delivered to space by any other means. At the same time, the Russian Soyuzand Progress vehicles are the most venerable, reliable spacecraft in the world, and by virtue of their much smaller size and greater simplicity, they are free from many of the constraints (especially weather related) that we have to deal with on Shuttle flights. So they can stick to a more predictable launch schedule than can the Shuttle. Another example can be found in the two different types of space suits (Russian and American) that are available on-board the ISS, providing valuable redundancy.

Without the integration of these complementary capabilities, the ISS Program would likely not have survived to this point. After the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, our Russian partners pitched in and picked up the slack, carrying 100% of the food, water, cargo, and crewmembers to the ISS until the Shuttle was ready to fly again. And just weeks ago, when a faulty power distribution block caused all of the Russian guidance and control computers to crash simultaneously, the Space Shuttle and the U.S. segment of the ISS were able to take over and keep the station’s orientation under control.

Other areas of our space programs are also integrated to a degree:

  • A number of NASA instruments have flown on Russian interplanetary probes and vice versa;
  • A number of NASA biological experiments have flown on Russian “Photon” biological satellites;
  • NASA and Russian propulsion engineers have cooperated to use the experiences of both sides to produce new, improved rocket motors;
  • NASA and Russian aeronautical engineers have cooperated on the study of supersonic flight and propulsion systems.

It remains to be seen if or how integrated our programs for the exploration of the moon and Mars will become, but hopefully we can continue to build on the experiences of the past 14 years.

SRAS: When did you first start learning Russian as a foreign language and why?

Mark Bowman: It was in preparation for my first trip to Russia in May 1993. I was assigned to help develop biomedical equipment for the research program to be conducted by NASA Astronaut Norm Thagard on board the Mir station. So I went to the library and obtained some audiotapes and books and began a self-study. I had lived in South America for two years (from 1979 to 1981), and I knew how important learning Spanish had been to my experience there. So I resolved to learn as much Russian as I could. Each time I came to Moscow (or Russian specialists came to the U.S.), I would listen very carefully to what the interpreters said as they translated what we had said in English, and before Iong I began to recognize words and phrases. Of course, as a result my vocabulary was biased toward technical terms – I knew how to say things like “offgassing,” “toxicological safety,” and “electromagnetic compatibility” before I could describe articles of clothing or foods!

To mitigate that, I tried to engage my Russian colleagues in conversations in Russian during breaks in our meetings and at social engagements. I made about five trips to Russia before moving over here for my first tour of duty (from December 1994 through January 1997). Once in Moscow, I hired a tutor and took Russian grammar lessons once a week for about eight months. That was the sum total of my formal training until I returned to Moscow for this tour of duty in September of 2005. I resumed formal lessons with a professor from Moscow State University in mid 2006, and have continued them weekly (as my schedule has allowed) to this day. I am determined to master all of the cases, which is my biggest stumbling block at the moment. It would help if I had a bit more spare time to devote to my homework!

SRAS: Well, it sounds like you are certainly making an effort! How important has your knowledge of Russian been in your obtaining your professional success?

Mark Bowman: I think it has been absolutely key to whatever measure of

A large water tank is used to train for spacewalks at Star City as this photo from the facility’s website shows.

success I have had in working with Russians. Of course, NASA (through its Russian language services contract with TTI) employs a cadre of excellent, highly qualified technical translators and interpreters, so all of our communication can be done through translators; in fact, when I am doing important technical work or communicating officially, I almost always use an interpreter or translator. This is because a seemingly simple mistake like an omitted word can make a huge difference in meaning and result in a potentially catastrophic misunderstanding. However, interpreters are not perfect, and most of our interpreters are not native English speakers, so sometimes there are nuances in English they miss that I’m able to catch and thus help avoid a misunderstanding. Most often this occurs because members of the NASA team come from all over the U.S. and have widely differing regional accents and inflections, so it is sometimes hard for the interpreter to understand what we are saying in English.

But the most important aspect of my knowledge of Russian occurs on another level. I’ve found that establishing personal relationships – relationships of trust – is extremely important when working with Russians. And one of the best ways to establish relationships is to communicate on a personal level outside of meetings – which is done much more effectively without an interpreter. Even though I might have a limited vocabulary or make grammatical mistakes, I think that my Russian colleagues appreciate the effort I make to learn and speak their language, and this says a great deal to them about our relationship. So it is my opinion that my attempts at speaking Russian have opened doors that might otherwise not have been opened.

SRAS: It sounds like knowing languages has certainly helped you in your career. Would you advise all science and engineering students to learn foreign languages? Why or why not?

Mark Bowman: Without hesitation, and there are many reasons why. First, so much of the vocabulary of science and engineering comes from foreign languages (Latin, German, and French, for example) that a working knowledge of a foreign language helps to understand these terms and their origins. Second, my sad experience is that today’s graduates of science and engineering programs in the U.S. are woefully unprepared to communicate well in written and spoken English. Learning a foreign language – any foreign language – helps one to better understand and appreciate the structure of languages in general, and thus to communicate better in English. Third, once you have learned one foreign language, learning a second or third becomes much easier (again, because you understand the structure of languages). Fourth, language study exercises different parts of the brain than purely computational (math and science) work; and I’m a firm believer in a “balanced brain.” Fifth, as our economy continues to become truly global, scientists and engineers that are able to communicate in more than one language are certainly at an advantage from a career standpoint. Sixth, languages are windows on the culture and ways of thinking of other peoples, and language study – especially when combined with a study of the associated cultures – is a way of developing sensitivities and understandings that are very important in dealing with others. I could go on and on about this topic…

SRAS: That’s ok, I think we get the point. Speaking of “sensitivities,” the political relationship between the U.S. and Russia has never been a smooth one. Do you find this is ever reflected in the astronauts’ relations with one another on missions that mix Russian and American astronauts or in the general cooperation between the two agencies?

Mark Bowman: While I cannot say that it is never reflected in the relationships between astronauts and cosmonauts (after all, I’m not one of them), I can say that in general the relationships between Americans and Russians at the working level is quite good, and almost without exception is unaffected by and independent of any political disputes between our two governments. In fact, if our governments got along as well together as we do at the working level, there would be a lot less tension in the world.

I do know quite a few astronauts and cosmonauts, and my experience has been that most of the crews have gotten along very well; in fact, many crewmates have become very close friends for life. As in any workplace or family situation, there have been disputes and differences; we are after all dealing with human beings. But a great deal of effort is spent during training pre-flight to assure compatibility of the crews, and I believe by and large we have succeeded.

Of course there are cultural and attitudinal differences between our peoples that have been affected by the sociopolitical history of our two countries; but NASA tries to make our employees aware of these differences by means of cross-cultural training, and that helps us to know understand and resolve conflicts that arise. I think at the technical levels – “down in the trenches,” if you will – we do a pretty good job. We soon learn that our Russian counterparts have more in common with us than we might have thought.

At the management and agency levels, political and financial issues start to come into play, so my observation is that our relationships at these levels are not as seamless or trouble-free as those at the working level. I think one of the major problems we have in this respect is turnover: it is more common in the west for middle and upper managers to change positions frequently (and this is rapidly becoming true in Russian business, as well). As I said earlier, personal and trust relationships are very important in Russian culture, and it is difficult to build those kinds of relationships when turnover rates are high. In the west, we often do business based simply on the title on someone’s business card; in Russia, you need to get to know someone at a personal level in order to trust them worthy of that title. We still suffer from the results of this at higher levels.

SRAS: What do you think the possibilities of a manned base on the moon or manned missions to Mars are? Do you think there will be a greater demand for bilingual astronauts, engineers, and scientists if these projects come to fruition?

Russia is dotted with monuments to national hero Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

Mark Bowman: I believe that a lunar base and missions to Mars are inevitable – they are going to happen; the question is whether or not we, the American people, are willing to make the long-term financial and political commitment to lead or be a part of them. I certainly hope that we are, as I very much want to be a part of the NASA team that carries out this exploration. It would be a magnificent capstone to my career to see those first people set foot on Mars before I retire. Because of the scope of the effort and the magnitude of the financial commitment required, I think it is very likely that such missions will involve international partners. While our experience with the ISS has shown that having a “common language” of the project is of great value to the program, I have no doubt that there will in fact be a greater demand for bilingual – or multilingual – astronauts, engineers and scientists, for all the reasons I’ve discussed above.

SRAS: You’ve had several years experience residing in Moscow, spread out from the mid-nineties to the present day. What has been the biggest single change in Moscow during that time? Has life for American scientists here changed much?

Mark Bowman: There have been many changes, but I guess I’d have to say that the biggest single change in Moscow since I’ve been visiting (as I said, my first trip over was in early 1993) is the phenomenal influx of wealth and the resulting availability of goods of all kinds. When I first visited, finding goods and services was very difficult. Gas stations were few and far between and supplies were short, resulting in long lines reminiscent of the 1970s in the U.S. Often you’d see “makeshift” gas stations, where a fuel tanker would be pulled off to the side of the road with people stopping to fill up their cars and spare cans to carry in their trunks. Drivers would remove their windshield wipers and rear-view mirrors when parking their cars because of theft. Now there are modern gas stations all over, and auto parts are so readily available that nobody takes their wipers off any more!

Back in the early 90s, the stores were still very Soviet, with few (and poor quality) goods on the shelves. Service in the stores was very inconvenient and tedious, especially for westerners accustomed to supermarkets, department stores, and shopping malls. You’d first wait in line to see what they had and pick out what you wanted (or what could substitute for what you wanted), and receive a slip of paper listing the price and the department. Then you’d go to the cashier corresponding to the department from which you wanted to buy goods and wait in line to pay. The cashier more often than not totaled the prices on an abacus before giving you a handwritten receipt with an ink stamp to show its validity. Then you’d take the receipt and go stand in line again to present the receipt and pick up the goods you wanted. It used to take me four to five hours going to different stores across town trying to find groceries for my family. Now there are supermarkets and “hypermarkets” all over, overflowing with an abundance of goods of high quality from all over the world. As in the U.S., people are pushing shopping carts filled to the brim with goods, and there are modern checkout stands with laser bar code scanners. You now only have to wait in one line (although it is often long because the stores are teeming with shoppers) and can watch music videos on plasma-screen TVs while you wait. A large number of modern shopping malls exist all over Moscow today, so the shopping experience is much more like back home (though the prices are 125 – 200% higher here).

There has also been a tremendous amount of new construction. The ugly, crumbling old apartment buildings built during Khrushchev’s era are being augmented and sometimes replaced with modern-looking high-rise complexes, with price tags to match their height, resulting in Moscow becoming one of the two most expensive cities in the world. It is continually vying with Tokyo for that dubious honor.

Another change for the better is the improving communications infrastructure. In 1993, you were confined to an antiquated, unreliable, and simply inadequate telephone system, and dial-up internet connections operated at glacial speeds. In Moscow today, cell phones and cell phone providers are plentiful and inexpensive. Internet service providers are booming, and it is now relatively easy to find high-speed internet connections in hotels and businesses and thus to stay in touch via Email.

The major change for the worse that I have noticed is traffic. It has been estimated that the number of cars on the road in Moscow increases by about 10% per year, and the infrastructure (roads, bridges, tunnels, limited-access highways) just cannot keep up, in spite of the amazing number of road construction projects (which may help in the long run but in the short term only contribute to the congestion). The change in types of cars on the road has been remarkable, too. In 1993, I saw almost exclusively aging Ladas, Volgas and Moskviches on the road, with the occasional import that you knew had to be driven by someone in the Russian Mafia. Now there are as many import cars on the road as there are domestic cars, if not more. And not a day goes by that I don’t see at least one Bentley, four to five Porsche Cayenne Turbos, two or three Hummers, and countless Mercedes and Volvo sedans, joined by Peugeots, Renaults, Citroens, Toyotas, Nissans, Land Rovers, Kias, Cheries and Great Walls (from China), Lexuses, and Infinities. It used to take me 30-40 minutes to drive from my apartment to Mission Control; it now routinely takes me 1 to 1.5 hours to get there.

In summary, life for Americans living in Moscow has changed for the better. With the exception of the cost of living and the traffic, it is much less of a “hardship post” than it was before. Life here is still more difficult than back home – it seems that it just takes more effort to do anything, but it is much easier than it was.

SRAS: Besides language skills, what should students focus on if they want to work for NASA?

Mark Bowman: About 90% of the civil service positions at NASA (and almost all of the “fun” positions) require a BS in engineering, mathematics, or a physical science (pure or applied physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc.).  With a language or other liberal arts degree alone, you are pretty much limited to working in administrative jobs, or perhaps the history department or in international relations at HQ, and those departments are so small that opportunities are very limited.  With a science degree AND languages/liberal arts, your horizons are much broader – you would be eligible to apply for an engineering, scientific or technical job at any of NASA’s centers.

If you are interested in working for one of the many NASA contractors, then with a liberal arts or language degree alone, you could possibly work for one of our Russian logistics/interpretation contractors (there are two; one at HQ and one that supports the International Space Station program), but with a math, engineering, or science degree you could work for almost any of the NASA contractors.

SRAS: How helpful do you think that study-abroad experiences would be for engineering and science majors? What advice would you give students coming to Russia from America?

A recent photo of Mission Control in Korolev, just outside Moscow. Photo from NASA’s official site.

Mark Bowman: I think study-abroad experiences are extremely helpful for all students – including, but not limited to, engineering and science students. In fact, I almost think it should be mandatory. I think the intercultural experience is invaluable and adds a breadth of perspective that one cannot obtain in any other way. You learn that our way of doing things is not the only way; it is not even always the best way. You also develop an appreciation for the many blessings and privileges that we have in America that others do not have. My earlier experience living in South America (Santiago, Chile) for two years, while not a study-abroad experience per se, was extremely valuable to my academic career. It certainly made my adaptation to Russia much easier when the time came for me to move over here.

As for advice for those coming over to Russia, there are several things I would suggest.

  • Get as much language training as you can before you come.
  • When you are here, try to speak as much Russian as you can – exclusively, if possible. Don’t use interpreters as a “crutch” – instead, use them as a tool for technical exchange and additional learning. Having a basic understanding of the fundamentals, followed by an immersion experience is, I think, the best way of learning any language.
  • Have an open mind, and resolve to make the experience positive. Chances are that not every experience you will have will be pleasant, but they will all give you good life experience and preparation for dealing with challenges in the future. As the old saw goes, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”
  • Get to know the Russian people – and you’ll make friends for life.
  • Take time to learn about Russian history and culture. Don’t get so wrapped up in your job or studies that you don’t take time to enjoy the full experience.
  • Use moderation, especially in alcohol consumption. Don’t ever try to drink a Russian “under the table.” While I am a teetotaler, I have seen far too many colleagues fall into this trap, much to their chagrin and discomfort.
  • Use common sense, and always use the “buddy system” when you go out on the town. Always make sure that someone knows where you are going and how to reach you.
  • Be a good representative of your country. Know that the Russians you meet will judge the U.S. by you and your behavior, just as you will judge Russia by their behavior. Bad behavior will get you into trouble, and the Russian legal system is not what you are used to back home.
  • Enjoy your experience to the fullest!
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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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