South Korea's First Astronaut Hopes to Bring Koreas Closer

South Korea's First Astronaut Hopes to Bring Koreas Closer
South Korean astronaut Yi So-yeon, a member of the new crew of the next manned mission to the International Space Station looks on at the mock-up of a Soyuz TMA space craft before a pre-fight examination at the Russian Space Training Center in Star City outside Moscow, Tuesday, March 18, 2008.
(Image: © AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel.)

BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan (AP) -The woman slated to become South Korea's first astronaut said Monday she hopesher time in space will encourage closer ties between the divided Koreas.

?I hope someday they will beone, and I hope the North Korean people will be happy with my flight,'' said YiSo-yeon, a 29-year-old bioengineering student.

?I'm a daughter of NorthKorea and a daughter of South Korea. I hope the people of Korea believe that,''she said, one day before her scheduled blastoff from the Baikonur Cosmodrome inthe remote scrubland of western Kazakhstan.

Yi willbe joined in her two-day journey to the International Space Station by flightengineer Oleg Kononenko, 43, and Sergei Volkov, 34, the pilot of the spacecraftand son of a decorated Soviet cosmonaut. He will be the firstsecond-generation space traveler.

Appearing before reportersin their last public appearance before the mission, the crew appeared calm buthaggard as they approached the end of their rigorous training period, and theyoffered some final words of wisdom for children worldwide - never abandon yourdreams.

The South Korean governmenthas a US$20 million (euro13 million) deal with Russia for the flight. Yi wasamong 36,000 applicants for the job in a 2006 nationwide competition.

She was originally chosenas a backupto Ko San, an expert in artificial intelligence, and was not expected tofly. But Ko was replaced by Yi after Russian officials accused him of theunauthorized removal of technical manuals from the Star City cosmonaut trainingcenter near Moscow.

Ko, who has apologized andremains a backup member of the crew, praised Yi and shrugged off hisdisappointment at losing his seat on the flight.

?I am happy,'' he toldreporters at the cosmonaut preparation center here. The center serves as thecosmonauts' hotel as they prepare for space flights.

Yi has drawn intenseattention from the South Korean and Russian media. About 50 journalists fromthe Korean SBS network are in Baikonur to cover the flight.

Asked by reporters what shewould do first in space, she said: ?At first I cry 'Wow.'"

She said she plans to carryphotographs of her family and Ko with her, and to serenade her fellowastronauts on Wednesday - Cosmonauts' Day - with a song that, she said, willremain secret until then.

Sim Eunsup, director of theKorea Aerospace Research Institute's Space Applications Center, told reportershe was satisfied with the Russian space program. He also said South Korea hasno plans to send additional astronauts into space.

?But in my personalopinion, I hope that Korea invests in the astronaut program," he said.

Volkov and his father,Alexander Volkov, have said little publicly about the distinction of being thefirst father-son cosmonaut team. Sergei Volkov said earlier this month that ifhis own son wanted to become a cosmonaut he would have serious discussions withhim about the decision.

The elder Volkov appearedat the rollout of the rocket to the launch site Sunday to check preparations.The veteran cosmonaut logged up 391 days in space on three separate spacemissions in the 1980s and early 1990s.

On his last journey, heleft Earth as a Soviet citizen and returned as a citizen of the new RussianFederation, following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The Soyuz was expected todock with the station on Thursday, and Volkov and Kononenko are both scheduledto spendsix months as part of the orbiting station's crew. Astronaut GarrettReisman, who arrived last month on the U.S. space shuttle Endeavor, iscurrently on board the station.

Yi is to return to Earth onApril 19 along with two of the station's current occupants, U.S. astronautPeggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko.

NASA will broadcast thelaunch of Expedition 17 toward the ISS live on NASA TV beginning at 6:15 a.m.EDT (1015 GMT). Click here for SPACE.com's NASA TV feed and live ISS mission updates.

 

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