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Soyeon's Odyssey

Soyeon Yi.
by Morris Jones
Sydeny, Australia (SPX) Feb 01, 2011
In April 2008, South Korean mechanical engineer Soyeon Yi became the first Korean in space. Her liftoff on board the Soyuz TMA-12 mission to the International Space Station was the start of a busy 11-day flight, during which she divided her time between scientific experiments and public outreach activities. But flying in space was just one part of Dr Yi's ongoing odyssey as an ambassador for spaceflight and her native land.

Dr Yi has toured the world as a representative of KARI, South Korea's space agency, and made numerous public appearances. It was only a matter of time before she crossed paths with Space Daily correspondent Dr Morris Jones, who interviewed her on a recent visit to Sydney.

Experiments performed on Dr Yi's flight include a study of mutations in fruit flies, and a special 3D camera system that was used to photograph changes in the shape of her face in weightlessness.

Special Korean food was included on Soyeon Yi's space mission, including kimchi. This is a fermented cabbage dish with garlic and hot peppers that is essentially Korea's national dish. Kimchi is widely enjoyed by almost all Koreans (and by some SpaceDaily correspondents) but its pungent flavour and smell can sometimes surprise western palates. The interview could not pass without discussing it!

SpaceDaily: What surprised you most of all about actual spaceflight versus the training?

Soyeon Yi: Meeting the other astronauts on the International Space Station was interesting, because they have so much more experience than me in flying in space. Whenever I had dinner with the Russians and the Americans, they kept talking about spaceflight. They would talk about things like the fact that toilet paper feels softer in space, or how to deal with vomiting, where it's best to use a plastic bag. It was a lot of small things like that. This is what surprised me.

SpaceDaily: Did you experience any discomfort in adapting to space?

Soyeon Yi: Right after I arrived at the International Space Station, I had a really big headache and felt dizzy for around two days. I was also vomiting every ten minutes. Also, I grew three centimetres in height in weightlessness, and that gave me serious back pain.

SpaceDaily: Have the results of the fruit fly experiment been published yet?

Soyeon Yi: Not yet. I heard that they are still working on it.

SpaceDaily: What was the reaction to flying kimchi on your mission?

Soyeon Yi: Korean people love kimchi, so we had to develop a version of space kimchi before my flight. I had ten cans of it on my flight, so there was enough.

SpaceDaily: How did the other crew members react to the kimchi?

Soyeon Yi: The American astronauts were already familiar with kimchi. There are lots of Korean restaurants in the Houston area and a large ethnic Korean population. They already knew about our hot pepper sauce and other traditional Korean dishes. One of the American astronauts told me that I shouldn't eat too much of the Korean food on the station, because I would be going back to Earth in ten days. They wanted me to leave some for them.

SpaceDaily: Your Soyuz return spacecraft (Soyuz TMA-11) experienced a ballistic re-entry on your return to Earth. Did your training prepare you well for this type of a contingency?

Soyeon Yi: We had training for making a ballistic re-entry at Star City. Luckily, when I trained with the back-up crew for the flight, they explained it all it a lot of detail. It was really lucky to have this in place. During the re-entry, I saw something out the window, but my back-up commander said that there should be nothing there, so I reported to my commander and he wanted to check it. Even before the Soyuz systems caught it, we knew that something was wrong. At the time, I think it was good to show that I did my best with the training. Some people think I was unlucky, but I think I was really lucky.

SpaceDaily: South Korea has a robust space program. What's happening in the near future?

Soyeon Yi: I don't think we will develop huge spacecraft, but we have good technology for small satellites. I think it makes sense for us to have a launch vehicle to go with them. The KSLV (Korean Satellite Launch Vehicle) program is working on this. After that, I don't know exactly where we will go. There is talk of sending a satellite into lunar orbit around 2020.

It's my opinion that we should find our own unique place in the space age. Every nation has its own characteristics. We don't have a huge land area like Russia, so it would not be so easy to recover capsules on our territory. It would have been sensitive if my flight had landed in North Korea. So we need to find our own strong points, just as other countries have their own strengths and techniques.

SpaceDaily: Are there any plans for future South Korean astronaut launches?

Soyeon Yi: A lot of researchers in South Korea would like there to be another Korean astronaut mission, but right now we don't have any plans for one. Maybe it will happen in the future.

SpaceDaily: What is your own career path like now?

Soyeon Yi: Right now, officially I am a senior researcher of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, but my work isn't really like a normal researcher. Most of the time, I travel around South Korea, giving lectures to children and the general public. I also have my own radio show. It's a daily three-minute show to explain science and technology around our own lives. It's not just about space. If there's a flu epidemic, I might talk about influenza, for example. Every week, I go to the studio and record a week's worth of programs in one session. Also, I am an adjunct professor of KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), and I have taught students. I love my job.

Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer.

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