The journey to Nuri
The author is the president of KAIST and a member of the fourth industrial revolution committee of the Reset Korea Campaign of JoongAng Ilbo.
It must have been the fall of 1988. KAIST professor Choi Soon-dal with a book in his hand enthusiastically said, “Let’s launch a satellite. I studied it during the summer at the University of Surrey. It is not a big deal.” All the faculty members including myself looked at him bewilderingly. The electronics engineering department he was in and the rest of the staff were ignorant about satellite technologies. Choi proposed sending students to learn the field.
So, we put up an invitation posting on the bulletin board for the junior class at KAIST. We worried if there would be enough applicants since space was yet an unfamiliar field. Fortunately, there were many enthusiasts. Nine were selected. They flew to Britain to study satellites. Students learned the engineering and satellite communication technologies fast.
They brushed aside our worries about the capability of university students to master such exotic subjects. They finally reached the stage of manufacturing a satellite. They bought the parts in Britain and practiced the assembly. They brought home the parts and mastered the engineering.
The satellite was ready to fly. It was christened “Uribyeol (Our Star) 1. It was launched from a French rocket in 1992. The satellite worked well in the space. South Korea joined the satellite club. The Uribyeol 2 was made at home through the skills learned from Britain. The third one was entirely designed and engineered by South Koreans.
The Uribyeol became the benchmark in the way South Korea imports and localizes a new technology. The multi-purpose satellite Arirang 1 developed by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute was produced in the United States. The second was self-developed. The KTX bullet train initially relied on French technology, but was later localized. South Korea relies on a new technology first from outside at first, but does not need to from the second time.
The Nuri space rocket was realized through the same process. The earlier Naro rocket had to depend on a Russian first-stage booster in the space launch vehicle in the launch of 2009. After two failures, it was successful in 2013. This time, we had to test our own technology. The Nuri rocket entirely made by Korean technologies flew with a dummy payload and arrived at its destination of a 700 kilometer (430 miles) sun-synchronous orbit.
Although it failed to achieve the final mission of placing the payload into orbit, the launch was meaningful. The lift-off was a success in all three stages. Since rocket technology is pivotal in military capabilities, Korea’s indigenous technology can build deterrence against military powers.
South Koreans can achieve anything if they put their minds to it. They have internalized satellite, super-speed rail, nuclear power, semiconductors, automaking and fighter jet technologies. The work had not been easy. Koreans had to learn them by looking over the shoulder and even sneaking for a second glance to learn as much as possible.
Engineers put up the national flag when they are engaged in development.
The next administration must encourage and cheer scientists and engineers on. Radical incentives must be offered to draw more talents. Science and technology ensure peace and prosperity in the modern society.
We finally won the ticket to join the elite space club. North Korean rockets should be a lesser worry. I am eager to go on a business trip next month. I plan to spread the news with foreign people I meet and share joy with Koreans living abroad.