Stars in his eyes, researcher picks the first astro-KoreanWho will be the first Korean in space?
That’s what the Korea Aerospace Research Institute in Daejeon has been trying to decide. For the last six weeks or so, it has received more than 20,000 applications for its “astronaut project team” to launch Korea’s first astronaut.
“I was amazed to find the number of applicants surpass 10,000 in just four days,” said Lee Ju-hee, 37, a senior researcher overseeing the screening of applicants. “It’s made it clear to me just how fascinated the public is with what we’re doing.”
Altogether, the team has 10 members, including two researchers from the Ministry of Science and Technology. Leading it is Choi Ki-hyeok, who deals with external affairs, including negotiations with Russia, whose Soyuz spacecraft is planned to carry a Korean into space for the first time.
As of May 26, 22,643 people had applied: 18,429 men and 4,114 women. Following its initial deluge of applications, including 2,000 on the first day alone, the institute says it now receives around 500 applications a day. The team members say they expect over 30,000 hopefuls to have applied for the mission by July 14, the deadline.
Asked whether he would be one of those 30,000, Mr. Lee said, “Of course, I have a nagging desire to fly to space, but I’ll just have to deal with it.”
When he was a young child, he said, Mr. Lee loved to look at the stars. Growing up in the countryside in Cheongwon county, North Chungcheong province, Mr. Lee said he would herd cows to their barns to be fed every night. After locking up the cows, he would lie on the grass staring into space and dream of the stars.
“I used to wonder how I could get closer to space,” Mr. Lee. “So I eventually decided to study astronomy at Kyung Hee University.”
After receiving his master’s degree, Mr. Lee joined the Korea Aerospace Research Institute in 1998, where in 2004, he developed scales to measure the mass of objects in space.
Now receiving thousands of pleas for the chance to go to space, Mr. Lee has some idea how his parents must have felt when, as a starry-eyed youth, he nagged them endlessly to buy him a telescope. Though he asks anyone interested to apply for the opportunity online (www.woojuro.or.kr), many still drop by in person, no doubt thinking erroneously that doing so helps them score them some extra points.
One question he hears all the time is whether applicants must be able to speak Russian. “Though it would be nice if they could speak Russian,” he said, “there are no additional points given for being able to do so.”
Through reviewing applications and a series of physical tests ― including a mini-marathon ― starting in late July, the 30,000 or so applicants will be whittled down to 300.
Though Mr. Lee is passionate about space travel, his job is not without a downside. Since late last year, for example, he has almost never made it home before 11 p.m. “Once in a while I go home early. My three- year-old child feels strange seeing me and even runs away,” he said.
by Shim Jae-woo