SP-4209 The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

Do You Speak Russian?


During the winter of 1972 the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) created the civil service position of Russian Language Officer, and Nicholas Timacheff filled that slot on 2 January 1973. His duties were varied and included supervising the interpreters who worked during the joint missions, the contractor who provided translators who in turn worked on the documentation and the Russian language training for the American flight crews. In addition, Timacheff and his assistant, Donalyn Epstein, filled in as interpreters at meetings and telecons, reviewed movie scripts, and oversaw the compilation of a commonly accepted English-Russian Russian-English glossary for ASTP.

Language training was a major challenge for the crews, despite Tom Stafford's comments to the press during the July meeting that Russian was nyet problém.27 During the fall of 1972, language training had been discussed in Washington and Houston, and all parties agreed that a formal program of instruction was needed to supplement the personal studies in which some of the astronauts were engaged. There appeared to be three possible approaches enroll the astronauts in a formal course such as those offered by the State Department Foreign Service Institute or the Department of Defense language schools; contract with a university to provide instruction; or bring instructors to the space center to work with the crewmembers. The language schools required a full year of residential study, and the crew obviously could not leave their other activities for that length of time. Johnson Spacecraft Center (JSC) management also preferred to keep the work within government circles in an effort to keep costs down; that ruled out universities. Early in 1973, Lunney, Timacheff, and the others finally agreed to try having instructors from the Foreign Service Institute work at JSC with Slayton and Stafford for short stretches to see if this [256] approach would be satisfactory. Vance Brand and the backup crewmen would begin language studies once their commitments to Skylab were completed.28

By the time the Soviets arrived for the July training sessions, Slayton had received nearly 140 hours of Russian instruction, and Stafford 115. Between August and the November trip to Star City, Slayton raised his total to 245, and Stafford to 225. A year earlier, Deke had noted in a memo that he hoped "all will consider adequate" 300 hours of language training.29 But having nearly reached that point, Slayton and Stafford realized that many, many more hours of studying Russian would have to precede the flight.

27. "Visiting Cosmonauts Have a W. Texas Rural Look," Houston Chronicle, 19 July 1973.

28. Owen G. Morris to Christopher C. Kraft, memo, "Flight Crews for ASTP," 18 Sept. 1972; Morris to Kraft, memo, "ASTP Language Training," 7 Nov. 1972; Myers to Rocco A. Petrone, memo, "Astronaut Proficiency in the Russian Language," 17 Oct. 1972; Petrone to Meyers, memo, "Astronaut Proficiency in the Russian Language," 20 Nov. 1972; Donald K. Slayton to Morris, memo, "Joint US/USSR Crew Training," 15 Dec. 1972; interview, Brzezinski-Ezell, 23 Sept. 1975; and interview, Nicholas Timacheff-Ezell, 1 Oct. 1974.

29. Morris to Kraft, memo, "Flight Crew for ASTP," 18 Sept. 1972.