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English Language the Latest Casualty of Space Race

  • Russian Cosmonauts

    Sept. 2, 2011: U.S. astronaut Dan Burbank, right, with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, center, and Anatoly Ivanishin pose before their final preflight practical examination in a mock-up of a Soyuz TMA space craft at Russian Space Training Center in Star City outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

  • Astronaut-Soichi-Noguchi-STS-114

     (NASA)

Along with training in spacewalks, robotics, and piloting a spaceship, NASA is requiring that all future astronauts learn to speak and read Russian.

The rules are plain and simple: If you flunk the foreign language requirement, you can't go into space.

A handful of NASA astronauts have taken Russian language training since the U.S. and the Soviet Union began work on the Mir space station in the '80s, Duane Ross, manager for astronaut candidate training, told FoxNews.com. But in 2009, the space agency revamped its rules -- and now all U.S. astronauts will have to learn Russian.

"English is the agreed-to language in space," Ross explained. But due to the close collaboration with the Russian space agency, it's now mandatory for America's astronauts to speak Russian, he said.

NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in July, leaving Russia's Soyuz rockets as the sole means of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a sign to many that the Russians have "won" the space race. 

Many former astronauts, NASA administrators and government officials view conceding the space race as simply unacceptable.

"When China can reach the moon and we cannot, I don't see why any other nation would regard us as a world leader," former NASA administrator Mike Griffin told members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Sept. 22

"Get the shuttle out of the garage," famous moonwalker Gene Cernan said. "It's in its prime of its life. How could we just put it away?"

With the demise of Constellation -- an overbudget program to develop a space shuttle replacement that President Obama cancelled in 2010 -- NASA realized how heavily it would be forced to rely upon Russia.

Around the same time, the space agency instituted the new proficiency requirement for all astronaut candidates, Ross told FoxNews.com.

"In 2009, we knew those folks would all be travelling to the space station so we made that a requirement," he said. "There's a certain level of proficiency they have to attain to pass."

Russia clearly realizes the extent to which the U.S. space program relies upon it. Within months of the January 2010 news that Constellation was being cancelled, Russia announced plans to more than double the cost of seats on its Soyuz rockets, from $26.3 million per astronaut to as much as $55.8 million in 2013 and 2014.

And three months ago, immediately following the safe touchdown of the shuttle Atlantis (the final flight of America's shuttle program), Russia's space agency noted the historic accomplishments of the U.S. space program -- and proclaimed the start of Russian domination in space.

"From today, the era of the Soyuz has started in manned space flight, the era of reliability," the Russian space agency Roskosmos said on July 21.

So long -- and thanks for all the help, the statement seemed to read.

NASA seems to realize how awkward its Russian-language training must seem: The most recent brochure for the Astronaut Selection and Training program makes no mention whatsoever of the Russian-language requirement, despite pages of copious details about the other aspects of training.

Ross told FoxNews.com that the space agency plans to revamp the brochure soon.

On Monday, the space agency announced it would be seeking around 8 to 12 new astronauts to bolster its roster, following a National Research Council report that warned the U.S. astronaut corps was dwindling.

To learn more about astronaut training -- or to apply for the class -- visit astronauts.nasa.gov.

It'll help if you can speak Russian.