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Astronaut Lee So-yeon’s decision to quit aerospace institute

Astronaut Lee So-yeon’s decision to quit aerospace institute

Updated June. 27, 2014 04:17


“The earth is blue,” said by Yuri Gagarin, the first man who saw the earth from space and the first-ever astronaut of the human race. The former air force officer of the Soviet Union orbited the earth for 108 minutes in the Vostok 1 spacecraft on April 12, 1961. During the space travel, Yuri Gagarin hummed a song with lyrics in part “The motherland hears, the motherland knows/ where her son flies in the sky,” which was composed by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1951. Nationality seems to be important even to astronauts, as evidenced from the fact that the first astronaut had a thought of the motherland while opening a new chapter for human race.

Definition of the term "astronaut" varies depending on the organization. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) defines a space flight as flying at altitude of 100 kilometers (approximately 62 miles) or higher and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines as flight at altitude of 80 kilometers (approximately 50 miles) or above. Astronauts trained to perform special tasks in the space fall in this category. Other definitions include "spaceflight participant," aboard on the spacecraft but not involved in official tasks, and "space tourist," who is on the spaceship for the purpose of tour.

Lee So-yeon is the first Korean astronaut, the fruit of a government-led project to produce the first Korean astronaut. Selected with Ko San in 2006, Lee had been trained in Russia in 2007. Originally, Ko was designated as a spaceflight participant while she was appointed as a preliminary candidate. But Lee became the one who finally got on board the Soyuz TMA-12 on April 8, 2008 due to Ko’s violation of certain training rules. She finished 18 experiments in the International Space Station and returned to the earth on April 19. NASA categorizes her as "spaceflight participant," due to the reasons that she got on the spacecraft under the commercial contract between Korea and Russia.

As Lee has decided to quit her job at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) this August, controversy has been provoked regarding achievement of the Korean astronaut project, which the government spent approximately 26 billion won (25.6 million U.S. dollars). She has been on a leave since 2012, in pursuit of further education in the business management in the U.S., and recently got married with a Korea-American. It is hard to blame her since she finished her obligated service period at the institute and the subsequent space projects by the government are too slow to make progress. But it is also hard to deny that her decision leaves bitter taste.

Editorial Writer Han Ki-heung (eligius@donga.com)