DAEJEON, South Korea — Clicking heels echo through the museum at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI). Just inside the doors is a life-size model of Korea’s first astronaut, a woman, Yi So-yeon. Only two other countries (Iran and the UK) have had a female as their first space explorer, and the KARI Space Flight Museum highlights Yi’s adventure into space with smiling photos next to star charts and historical rockets.
The real Yi turns the corner sporting funky green-striped heels expertly coordinated with a red and white cape-style jacket. She smiles as she approaches, and jokingly poses beside the model of herself.
Some people call the 33-year-old Yi a "star," but she balks at that title. If you ask her, she’s a scientist, a woman, and a daughter. After spending months in training and 10 days in space to become the first Korean to ever ride a rocket away from earth, most people would call her an astronaut. She’d agree with that, too.
Yi So-yeon was born in Gwangju and spent the first 15 years of her life living among the people of this city. She went on to Gwangju Science High School and began nurturing what has been a life-long passion for science and learning.
Yi So-yeon on her way into history
Throughout undergraduate and postgraduate coursework at the renowned Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), she lived in the lab. It wasn’t until she found herself burnt out from sleeping in ‘clean rooms’ that she learned of the Korean government’s competition to send the first Korean into space.
After an exhaustive nationwide selection process and 12 months of training in Russia, Yi was selected to represent Korea aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-12 along with two Russian cosmonauts for a 10-day space mission. Her mission launched on April 8th, 2008 and the rest is, as they say, history.
Yi settles into a comfortable chair and bats away a prepared list of questions before mentioning her time in space fondly. While living in the International Space Station, she performed 18 different experiments, including studying the effects of gravity on the pressure in her eyes and the shape of her face.
To judge the effects of gravity on the contours of her face, she took daily photos of herself while in space – a favorite pastime of her fellow Koreans back here on earth. In space, Yi had to forget whatever worry she had for her image and take care of the task at hand. She encourages women to not let concern for image get in the way of doing their job.
“It was hard, but I don’t have to worry about (my) puffy face at all, even though I had a puffy face and pony tail, I could smile in front of the camera.”
Yi, in some of the many pics taken to monitor the effect of gravity on her face during orbit
Raised in a traditional Korean family, Yi felt that her role as a Korean ‘woman’ and as a Korean ‘astronaut’ must be reconciled.
“There was one great role model of mine in Russia, a female astronaut, Peggy Whitson. Thanks to her, I learned when I should be a woman, when I should be a scientist, when I should be an astronaut, when I should be a teacher, and when I should be a good daughter,” she said.
“Women should not confuse the right time. In your office, you don’t have to be a woman. You should be a good worker. But after your work, you should be a pretty and sexy woman. You have enough time, even more than enough. So, I learned that timing is important.”
It’s clear that she puts to practice the value of a balanced life. While traveling in space was a ‘really cool’ experience, her real goal in becoming an astronaut was for science not for the accompanying stardom of being the first Korean in space.
“The only reason I applied for the astronaut position was to go to space for the experiments, not to be a star.”
Now as a Senior Researcher at KARI, she continues to work on aerospace research and was recently named as one of the ‘15 Asian Scientists to Watch’ by Asian Scientist Magazine.
Though her work in space was with fruit flies and various plant life, studying their response to zero-gravity, Yi’s current research involves using worms to study the effects of long-term zero-gravity in order to better understand how the human body will hold up during extended space missions, such as a long trip to Mars.
Author, Andrea Galvez, talking with astonaut and scientist, Yi So-yeon
“I’m working with small, small worms we call ‘C. elegans’. We try to simulate space environments with worms to learn what to expect and what would happen to people when we stay in space for more than two years. Nowadays, if we want to go to Mars, to do that we have to stay outside of Earth (gravity) for more than two years.”
Although she has lives much of her life in the lab with worms for company, she smiles easily and laughs often. She has fond memories of her time riding high above the earth.
“When I was up there, I could see the earth and think, ‘Wow, that’s where I was.’ I’m an engineer, so I think about the probability to be born in a place, and it’s a really, really low probability to be born in Korea. And I realize how lucky it is. Because if you were born in Africa even you cannot be sure if you will survive or not. Compared to those kinds of huge land space, Korea is too small. But compared to, maybe the 200 countries on Earth, Korea is maybe in the top 90 percent. I realized I should appreciate that type of huge luck.”
She believes in making your own luck, too. She encourages young people and adults to examine themselves first, do the job they are asked to and complain later.
“It’s so surprising. The person who did their best, they are very easy to blame themselves. But the person who didn’t do their best, they very easily complain or blame other people. Before complaining, you should think about yourself first. You should think about whether you did your best or not first, and then if you didn’t do your best, you should do it first and then complain.”
As time and questions run on, Yi folds her hands and patiently, even passionately, tells of being surprised and honored to be invited as adjunct professor at her Alma mater, KAIST. She admits thinking she’s not smart enough to be a professor there.
During our conversation, she talks about trying to be a good daughter, and how she prefers movies with happy endings. She is also a big fan of Korean’s passion about learning English. She confides that she learned English through the first-generation online messaging service ICQ, and challenges young people to first find their passion in life and then use English study as a tool to get there.
“To do my own job, I need English. But so many people try to do English first. That’s not good. I think you have your own object; you have your own dream. To make it, if you need English, you should do that. Then it’s easy to learn English, I think. Language is a kind of potential or something to support yourself, not the main job.”
She seems surprised when our time runs out and says her goodbyes amid quips about sending her photos to cute single men. The staccato of her heels fades across the campus as she returns to her lab where her worms are waiting.
This story was originally run in Gwangju News Magazine www.gwangjunewsgic.com
You can check out Andrea's blog here.
Photos by Jose Antonio Nigro. You can see his website at www.janigro.com
Photo courtesy of CCToday.