Doubts Grow Over Korean Space Cooperation with Russia

      April 28, 2008 09:21

      Ground crew help Korea's first astronaut Yi So-yeon after landing in northern Kazakhstan Saturday April 19, 2008. The Soyuz capsule carrying Yi landed in northern Kazakhstan Saturday, several hundred kilometers off-target. /AP

      Korea's first astronaut Yi So-yeon embarks on her important mission into outer space Tuesday. At 8 p.m. on April 8 (Korea Standard Time), a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying Yi will begin its final countdown at a launch site in Kazakhstan. Following a 50-hour flight into space, Yi will stay for 10 days at the International Space Station, orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 350 km, where she will conduct various scientific experiments.

      With the launch, Korea will become the world's 35th country to produce an astronaut. It's a bit late for a country boasting the world's 13th largest economy, but the significance of the event is huge nonetheless. Yi was chosen as the final candidate after a nationwide search. The entire 49 million population of South Korea has come together in heart and mind, watching the full process of Yi's selection to her ascent aboard the spacecraft. She carries with her the dreams and ardent wishes of her people toward space.

      Choi Gi-hyuk, the chief of the astronaut program at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, said the hydrogen peroxide fuel booster, which was supposed to control the spacecraft's position after re-entry into the atmosphere, did not function. The spaceship plummeted to the ground at a much steeper angle than expected and landed a whopping 420 km to the west of the expected landing zone two minutes earlier than scheduled.

      But Korea has not made an issue of the incident. A KARI astronaut program official merely said, "We agreed with Russia to make efforts to prevent negative news reports." A university professor of aviation and space critically said, "Such remarks are not the kind of statement expected from a customer who has paid a whopping W20 billion (US$1=W996). The country's astronaut program has turned into an ugly monstrosity, as our government was denied proper status in the bilateral contract as a result of its lack of negotiation ability."

      In an interview in Moscow last Tuesday, Yi said although the retro rocket engine operated, she felt "enormous gravity pull on my body because the spaceship was descending at a great speed. I thought this may be the way a human being dies."

      Quoting an anonymous Russian official, the Interfax news agency reported that during re-entry into the atmosphere, the spaceship was flying upside down, forcing its heat sink panel to be placed at the back and its hatch to hit the atmosphere directly. This suggested that the astronauts' safety was in danger because the hatch could have melted.

      Korea's poor diplomacy was also palpable at a press conference in Russia on the eve of the spacecraft's launch. No additional team of South Korean journalists was allowed to attend the press conference after Korea agreed to Russia's decision on that score because reporters from one Korean TV channel were already covering the conference.

      And despite a bilateral agreement, the logos of Korean businesses were not attached to the spacesuits or the rocket. Although Korean firms paid more than W3 billion each, their logos were attached to a signboard in front of screen monitors at Mission Control Center.

      Now there are even doubting voices about Ko's replacement by Yi after Ko was found to have taken instruction manuals home without permission. At the time, the Korean government stressed it alone decided to replace him while merely relaying to the Korean people what the Russian side alleged.

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