How Korean Is Korea's Space Program?

The Naro lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province on Wednesday. The Naro lifts off from its launch pad at the Naro Space Center in Goheung, South Jeolla Province on Wednesday.

Korea on Wednesday finally succeeded in launching the Naro space rocket on the third attempt. When all launch delays are included, it was the 11th attempt that made the difference. The next challenge is to place a 1.5-ton commercial satellite into orbit.

But some experts say the future is a return to the drawing board since Korea relied on Russian technology for the essential liquid-fueled, first-stage booster of the Naro.

Korea built the second stage and its solid-fueled engine. The first-stage booster is the same one used in Russia's next-generation Angara rocket, prompting some pundits to say the launch of the Naro was practically a test launch of the Angara.

Seoul started to pursue the rocket development program on its own in the early 1990s but turned to Russia for help in 1998 when Pyongyang launched a missile that flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific. The government wanted to achieve its goal as early as possible but failed to meet the 2005 deadline.

"If we had changed direction again in 2006 and started to work on our own, we would have built a first-stage booster by now and be testing it," said Cho Jin-soo at Hanyang University.

The Korea Aerospace Research Institute, however, says it obtained valuable technology from Russia in the process of collaborating on the Naro.

Researchers at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute in Daejeon react after the successful launch of the Naro on Wednesday. Researchers at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute in Daejeon react after the successful launch of the Naro on Wednesday.

Korea built its own space launch facility and observation center, and managed the entire process of launching a rocket, but at the core of space development is the ability to build a liquid-fueled, first-stage booster.

"Whether it is the U.S. or Russia, it is unheard of to transfer core technology through unofficial channels," said Chang Young-keun at Korea Aerospace University. And a government official here said, "We tried to show the public a successful rocket launch, whether it was Korean- or Russian-made."

When Korea sent its first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, to space on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2008, she was simply an observer with no set mission. Korea paid W20 billion (US$1=W1,085) for the chance, and suffered the humiliation of having the original candidate, Ko San, replaced at the last minute because he stole confidential information about the program.

"Space development is all about learning from one's mistakes," said one university professor in Seoul. "If we try to show only shining achievements, we end up having to lie."

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 31, 2013 10:14 KST