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Posted : 2008-04-09 19:21
Updated : 2008-04-09 19:21

First Korean in Space

Nation Took Small but Significant Step

Yi So-yeon, a 29-year-old mechanical engineer, is now watching the Earth from where no other Korean has ever been.

A total of 449 persons, including 48 women, from 39 countries had gone to space before Yi, however. What makes Yi's successful blastoff Tuesday news outside this country is the fact that she is the youngest female astronaut in the world, and the first woman to beat all her male compatriots in her own country.

The significance of the space flight she is making should be found other than in individual or national comparisons. To sum up, Yi is the symbol of Koreans' dream of extending their activities beyond this planet. And the 12-day, 26-billion won ($26 million) project, during which Yi will conduct 18 experiments, marks the start of this country's fledgling space industry.

We wish her travel will prove to be the proverbial good beginning that gets half of the job done. It will require Herculean efforts ― careful planning and continuous investment based on national consensus ― however, to go all the way.

Since the United States and former Soviet Union started a neck-and-neck competition in outer space half a century ago, there have always been debates about the costs and benefits, particularly in the foreseeable future. That many European and Asian countries are now competing to join the race, however, points to this sector's enormous importance in national security and its huge potential in industrial application. A country can no longer pose itself as a top technological power without a decent space industry.

Abroad, joining global efforts to open new frontier outside of this planet can enhance the national image and prestige by winning international respect, unless it is aimed mainly for military purposes. At home, Korea badly needs to rekindle its flickering natural sciences, as shown by the struggling engineering departments at colleges for want of students.

That Seoul is carrying out this project in cooperation with Russia is also meaningful in diversifying its technological partnership away from Western countries, the U.S. in particular.

This notwithstanding, there are some questions here that need to be cleared up for the long-term cooperation between the two countries. One of them is the suspicion surrounding the 11th-hour replacement of the designated first space traveler, Ko San, by Yi. Government officials say Ko's excessive zeal led to a violation of the agreed rules, which left still more questions than answers, however.

If this is due to Moscow's reluctance to share not even the slightest piece of know-how except for taking a Korean into space, as some here suspect, then it is hard to refute those skeptics who say the project will end up as just a $26-million one-time show. The two sides need to level the ground before proceeding further.

Seoul for its part ought to streamline all related programs and organizations along with precise budgetary allocation under a long-term blueprint to push ahead with its space project.

The London-based Economist magazine put Korea at higher-than expected ninth place in its recent space competitiveness index. Still, the gap with the U.S. was more than 10 times, and even that looked generous. Yi's ongoing mission is a start to narrowing the gap little by little.

So have a good time up there, So-yeon, and a safe journey home.

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