[Viewpoint]Time and spaceKorea is expected to become the 37th country in the world, after Brazil and Malaysia, to produce an astronaut. The timing is rather on the late side. What is the value of the country’s first astronaut? Yuri Gagarin’s first-ever trip to space had immeasurable value due to the fierce space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It is not easy to calculate the monetary value of the first astronaut. But we can estimate the value by studying the background and roles of the cosmonauts.
There have been about 450 astronauts in history, and they can be classified into three categories. The first group is the American, Russian and Chinese astronauts from countries with space shuttles. Americans and Russians make up 85 percent of the group. They are the professional space travelers and research scientists.
The second is the group of astronauts from satellite countries that the former Soviet Union allowed to participate in space missions. A dozen socialist allies and aligned countries, including Mongolia and Afghanistan, participated in the Intercosmos program. The astronauts from these countries became national heroes upon returning from space, but their roles were limited to traveling in space.
The third group is the astronauts from other countries that made a contract with the three nations that have a space shuttle. Such astronauts come from more than 20 such countries, including European nations, Japan and Canada. Most countries join the space missions hoping to participate in international development through manned space exploration.
Korea falls into this category.
Let’s look at the cases of two Japanese astronauts, Toyohiro Akiyama and Mamoru Mohri.
Television reporter Akiyama was selected to be on board a Russian spacecraft for an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Tokyo Broadcasting System in 1990. The media at the time praised the flight as the beginning of a space age in Japan. However, Japan’s government does not recognize Akiyama as its first official astronaut. Mamoru Mohri went to space two years later, but the former engineer is considered the first Japanese astronaut because he was selected by Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency. While the initial trip was delayed by the breakup of the space shuttle Challenger, he gets the recognition because he completed a seven-year training program and conducted scientific experiments in space.
Before Mohri retired in 2000, he worked for the aerospace agency and made a second trip to space. The economic value of Akiyama’s trip is estimated to be about $28 million, what the TV station had to pay to have its reporter fly on the Soyuz. On the other hand, Mohri’s value was realized through the space exploration program after his return from space. The Mitsubishi Research Institute estimated the economic value of a space exploration program is about 6.4 trillion won ($6.6 billion) while the program invests, the equivalent of more than 2 trillion won annually. Additional social impacts from improved weather forecasts and enhanced international status, national pride and science education add up to 3 trillion won.
The true value of an astronaut is determined by the role he or she plays. The activities of the astronauts upon returning from space vary in different countries. Some countries aggressively use their experience on future space missions and scientific experiments in subsequent projects. Others fulfill publicity duties through lectures and writing. Some astronauts return to private lives.
The Korean Astronaut Program is a government project costing 26 billion won. Any Korean could apply to become a candidate, and the whole process, from the selection to the launch, is being broadcast live.
The program might seem like an event. However, the Korean astronaut is a payload specialist fulfilling a space mission. It is a midterm result of the National Space Exploration Program that began in 1996. Along with the successful satellite project, it is the first attempt to confirm the potential of future space missions.
Yi So-yeon should not be a mere space traveler. Next year, more than 3,000 scientists will attend the International Astronautical Congress in Daejeon. We are at an important juncture to pursue a space exploration strategy to maximize the value of our own Korean astronaut through space stations and explorations of the moon.
*The writer is the dean of the College of Aviation and Management at Hankuk Aerospace University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Hurr Hee-young