Successful Rocket Launch Is the 1st Step on a Long Road

South Korea succeeded in launching its first rocket on Wednesday afternoon which placed a satellite into orbit at an altitude of 300 km just nine minutes after liftoff. It was the fruit of 11 years of efforts and two failed attempts at launching the rocket into space.

It restored South Koreans' pride a little after North Korea beat it in the space race late last year. Certainly staff at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and other scientists and engineers involved with the Naro launch must have felt immense pride and joy.

Some staff had to take medication to cope with the stress and pressure while working on the project. Heartfelt gratitude and congratulations are due to the dedicated scientists and technicians.

With the successful launch of the Naro, South Korea has taken its first step into space development. But a long and winding road lies ahead. It has not really joined the so-called space club, since the rocket was part-made in Russia. It has been able to gain valuable know-how in operating the entire process of launching a rocket as well as building a solid-fueled, second-stage booster and launch facility, but it still has not mastered a liquid-fueled, first-stage booster, which is the most crucial component in the process.

North Korea launched its own rocket in December last year, putting a satellite into orbit around the earth as South Korea faced repeated setbacks in its own space program. Experts say the South is about a decade behind North Korea in rocket technology.

China has caught up with the U.S. and Russia in space docking missions, while Japan has 16 consecutive successful launches under its belt. Korea is the least-developed in terms of rocket technology in Northeast Asia.

The government plans to put a 1.5-ton satellite into orbit on a homegrown rocket that will be developed by 2021. This is a lofty goal for a country that has yet to acquire the technology to build its own first-stage booster. Moreover, our annual budget for space development is only W200-300 billion (US$1=W1,085), which is less than one-tenth of Japan's.

Tokyo has set up an office under the prime minister tasked with overseeing the country's space program, involving the country's leader directly in the project. In South Korea, a single department in the Ministry of Science and Technology has been handling the space program. It is hard to imagine how South Korea can join world leaders in space exploration under these circumstances.

A space program is liable to suffer countless failures and requires lots of time and investment. If South Korea is to catch up nations with decades of experience in the field, a much more efficient and organized system is needed. A special agency directly under the president or prime minister must be set up to ensure pan-governmental planning and formulation of strategies. It requires the strong will and support of the country's top leader to succeed.

The current system whereby the Korea Aerospace Research Institute oversees the space program while private businesses play a secondary role must also change. The U.S. space program is evolving to a point where a private company called SpaceX handles the transport of cargo to and from the International Space Station. While South Korea has pursued its own space program for the last two decades, it has been unable to nurture a single private company with expertise in the field.

There needs to be a division of labor whereby state-run research institutes handle the development of core technologies, while private businesses handle the production of satellites and launch vehicles, so that the space program can become a new growth engine for the South Korean economy.

englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 31, 2013 14:02 KST