[OUTLOOK]One giant step for Korea

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[OUTLOOK]One giant step for Korea

By late November, after a third round of competition, the number of candidates to become Korea’s first astronaut was reduced to eight. This month, the number will be reduced to two after they undergo four rounds of assessment of interpersonal skills, adaptability in Russia and performance when they are put in isolation.
The two finalists will go to Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and undergo one year of training. In April 2008, one South Korean will board Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft and head for the International Space Station. Korea’s first amateur astronaut will stay there for around a week and help to perform scientific missions.
There has been criticism on the procedure to select Korea’s first astronaut, saying the person chosen will merely be a space traveler and the event is only for publicity. There has been controversy on whether the budget of 20 billion won, or $22 million, for the project is well spent. Some criticized that a television station invested part of the expense of screening the hopefuls to use the project for commercial purposes.
So, what is the difference between an astronaut and a space traveler? An astronaut pilots a spacecraft or conducts a mission in space, while a space traveler simply visits space out of personal interest.
In 1961, the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth for 89 minutes and returned to the ground safely. That was a phenomenal event; a human had gone into space for the first time in history. Since then, 450 astronauts have been produced from 34 countries over 45 years. Even developing countries such as Afghanistan, Mongolia and Cambodia have produced astronauts because the former Soviet Union let people from communist countries aboard its spacecrafts for political purposes.
Since the new century started, people have considered space more as a tourist attraction, or a place of exploration that people have only a vague idea about. The U.S. company Space Adventures sells tour programs in which people can visit the International Space Station and return to earth.
In 2001, Dennis Tito, an American businessman, traveled into space as the first civilian passenger, only 40 years after Mr. Gagarin first went into space.
After Mr. Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen and Anousheh Ansari have traveled into space one by one. Ms. Ansari visited the International Space Station most recently and became the first woman space traveler.
In 2004, SpaceShipOne, a manned spacecraft manufactured by a private company, successfully completed suborbital travel at the altitude of 100 kilometers, for the first time in history.
A suborbital flight means a flight where the plane succeeded in entering space but not at a fast enough speed to orbit the Earth. The person aboard the craft stayed for around five minutes at the borderline where space begins, and experienced zero gravity. After some 90 minutes, the craft landed safely on the runway.
The price target of a suborbital tour program is around 100 million won. If you want to travel into space on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, you need to pay 20 billion won. If you want to spacewalk at the International Space Station, an additional fee of 15 billion won is charged.
The suborbital space travel is the most popular program that private space tour companies offer. More than 200 people have made reservations to travel on the suborbital spacecraft that Space Adventures is developing.
But still, space travel is something that only rich people can enjoy. Unless the prices go down and the travel proves to be perfectly safe, space trips are only a dream for ordinary people.
It is not important whether Korea’s first person to visit space is called an astronaut or a space traveler. But it is very meaningful as the first step to our manned space development. Manned space development requires cutting-edge technology and comes at enormous expense. It has powerful ripple effects as well.
When a Korean goes into space for the first time, it will give the young generation dreams and hopes for science and technology and space exploration. Also, we can expect science to be developed even further by taking advantage of the space environment, such as being in zero gravity.

*The writer is a professor of aerospace engineering at Hankuk Aviation University.

by Chang Young-keun
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