Flying high

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Flying high

He's been a pivotal figure in Korea's aerospace dreams, helping to create and launch the peninsula's first satellites.

But in spite of his accomplishments, Hwangbo Han wants to be known for more than just his science. He paints and writes, too. "I am, after all, a doctor of philosophy," Mr. Hwangbo said. "'Techne,' the Greek word for technology, became 'ars' in Latin, and that word later became 'art.' Science and art are not only connected, but they help develop each other."

But when this man goes to work, he helps shape the future of Korea. Mr. Hwangbo is one of handful of scientists to work as system design engineers at NASA, developing rockets and satellites. In the 1970s, when the space agency was still relatively young, he was in the middle of it all. While working there, he met Wernher Von Braun, the first and foremost rocket engineer and a leading authority on space travel, then the vice president of Fairchild Space and Electronics Co. where Mr. Hwangbo worked for seven years.

A native of Daegu, he said one of this strongest memories came when he was a third-year chemical engineering student at Seoul National University and he saw on TV the former Soviet Union launch the world's first satellite into space.

Inspired, but stymied by the lack of aerospace programs in Korea, he decided to further his studies in Germany.

In Germany, he was able to overcome the language barrier within three months, and worked as a researcher for two years. He then transferred to the University of Connecticut where he earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering in two years.

He knew Korea needed better satellite and space technology, so set out to bring his knowledge to the peninsula. Upon returning to Korea in 1989, he worked on putting Korea's first satellite into space.

After seven years of development and research, Korea launched its first satellite, Koreasat1, in 1995, ?the 22d country to do so. Also known as Mugunghwa1 among Koreans, the satellite was able to transmit 80 broadcasting channels and communication services.

Koreasat2, or Mugunghwa2, arrived in January 1996. The Korean broadcasting system went from analog to digital, just the second country in the world to make the switch.

The technological advances didn't stop there. In September 1999, Koreasat3 was shot into space, bringing forth a brave new world: a multimedia satellite to guarantee light-speed Internet access.

Today, Korea has a total of seven satellites: three Koreasats, three scientific satellites, called "Uribyeol," and one observatory satellite, "Arirang."

Mr. Hwangbo has won several awards recognizing his achievements, including the Dongbaekjang, the Order of National Service Merit from the Korean government, and the Von Braun Space Program Management Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Today, Mr. Hwangbo, 64, works as a consultant at KT, now a privatized company that utilizes satellites. He also teaches aerospace sciences at Inha University.

Korea's acquisition of its own satellites relatively early on has resulted in lucrative profits for Korean companies. "Satellites are expensive," he says. "Procurement, maintenance, insurance and operation of the three stages of a satellite may cost some $500 million. To maintain the 24-hour, 365-day satellites in space requires 240 people, including 60 at control centers in Yongin in Gyeonggi province and Daedeok in Daejeon city.

But because satellites are so profitable, everyone has got into it, says Mr. Hwangbo. "In fact, there are too many satellites orbiting the earth. In a geosynchronized orbit, there are about 200 functioning satellites, and about 1,000 nonfunctioning ones. In an orbit closer to the earth, there are 1,000 smaller satellites. It takes only one-and-a-half hours to go around the earth, which means each satellite remains over Korea less than 10 minutes. Collisions rarely take place in orbit as the control center makes sure that the distance between satellites remains 70 kilometers. There is the International Telecommunication Union to control the traffic in space."

Now many companies compete for the "slot," or desired spot, in the orbit. For Korea, it was possible to launch the new satellite Koreasat5 because it is a replacement of Koreasat2. Mr. Hwangbo is concerned about old satellite debris -- there are about 5,000 of them -- clanking around outer space.

Korea's space calendar is filled with powerful satellites waiting to be launched, and such a demand has attracted French satellite suppliers, such as Arianespace and Alcatel.

So what does the satellite shopper have on his mind? "Performance, reliability and cost," Mr. Hwangbo says.

Mr. Hwangbo knows more than space science. He is proud of his oil paintings that were exhibited in Paris last year. He is also working on an English edition of his novel "The Meeting of the Stars," published two years ago in Korean.

For Mr. Hwangbo, the sky isn't the limit. At home, he enjoys tending to his low-tech hobbies of art and writing, both of which he does without the use of a computer. He does own an ordinary Samsung laptop to take care of more complicated matters, such as checking e-mail.


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History of Koreasat, the broadcasting and communication satellite


August 1995
Mugunghwa1, launched by American Delta2, became Korea's first satellite to cover parts of Manchuria, Korea and Osaka




January 1996
Mugunghwa2, launched by Delta2, became the second in the world to offer digital broadcasting




September 1999
Mugunghwa3, launched by French Arianespace4, allowed multimedia broadcasting and communications service




August 2001
The "gap-filler" satellite, Korea-sat4 was canceled as the dot-com bubble burst. Its capacities and technologies were combined into Koreasat5




December 2005
Koreasat5, another broadcasting satellite, will replace Koreasat2, guaranteeing larger coverage from East China to all of Japan


by Inēs Cho

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