By Cho Jin-seo
South Korea will become the second Asian country to send a woman to space as Yi So-yeon , together with two Russian cosmonauts, soon begins a 12-day journey to space on a Soyuz spacecraft Tuesday night.
The nation's first astronaut arrived at the launch pad in the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Korean time, seven hours prior to the historic launch.
Yi and two pilots Sergey Volkov and Oleg Kononenko changed into spacesuits, and had a final meeting with family members and representatives of their governments. They boarded the Soyuz TMA-12 spacecraft two hours before the launch.
``I will return safely,'' she told reporters in front of the Cosmonaut Hotel, riding the bus to the launch pad, according to SBS.
The mission to visit the International Space Station (ISS) will make South Korea the 37th country in the world to send a person into space, and the ninth to send a woman. Japan is the only Asian nation so far to send a female into space.
It will take less than nine minutes for the rocket to reach orbit, 242 kilometers above the earth. But the crew will have to wait in the tight compartment for two more days until the spaceship docks at the ISS at around 10 p.m., Thursday. Until then, they have to remain seated, and cannot eat meals or use the toilet.
The 29-year-old bio scientist is to stay in the ISS for about a week, conducting various experiments.
The return trip is scheduled for April 19. It will take only three hours and 23 minutes, as the module will be accelerated the Earth's gravity to a maximum velocity of 7.9 kilometers per second. By braking with three parachutes, the spaceship will slowly land on the vast grasslands of Kazakhstan.
The mission has drawn high anticipation from South Koreans, who enviously saw Japan and China send their own nationals into orbit. But skepticism remains as to whether it was worth 26 billion won of taxpayers' money to send Yi into space on a Russian spaceship. South Korea's general elections on Wednesday have also distracted the media's attention away from the space mission.
Another controversy rose last month when the Russian space authorities notified the exchange of roles between Yi and Ko San, who had been trained as the main astronaut candidate. Ko was stripped of his post for ``repeatedly violating regulations'' and was forced to give the role to Yi, who had been the backup.
Some suspected that Ko was spying for the Korean government. But both nations denied this and said it was his personal aspiration to learn more about the space project that led to the breaches of security regulations.
Yi and Ko were selected from among some 32,000 volunteer candidates in 2006, which included two Korea Times reporters. They have gone through a series of physical, mental, intellectual and publicity tests conducted in Korea and in Russia.
Upon returning, they will be working as researchers at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute as well as be Korea's space ambassadors. The mission can bring a fortune to the two, as they will share income from future TV commercials with the space agency, Ko told The Korea Times in January.