Sitting in a cafe off East Main Avenue, Yi looks like an average 36-year-old resident.
But she doesn’t have an average career. She is an international icon after becoming the first South Korean to travel to space.
Yi was chosen from 36,000 applicants in a 10-month, high-profile selection process. She never imagined she would be a finalist, and never dreamed as a young girl of being an astronaut.
“It’s not my lifetime goal,” Yi told The News Tribune. “I just tried.”
Since moving to East Pierce County two months ago, Yi said it’s refreshing not to have all eyes on her, as was the case in her home country. The most attention she gets is every Thursday at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, where she volunteers to speak to visitors about her life as an astronaut.
She moved to Puyallup to live with her husband, a local optometrist, after finishing her master’s degree in business at University of California, Berkeley. She is a permanent resident after obtaining her green card six months ago.
She loves her new city. It’s the right mix of urban, suburban and rural, she said. After growing up in a farming area in rural South Korea, she said the “green environments” feel familiar.
But adjusting to life as an average Puyallup resident has presented new challenges for Yi, who spent 10 years in college studying mechanical engineering and biosystems and worked as a researcher before her space flight in 2008.
She said finding a job has been difficult. With astronaut at the top of her résumé, most would assume she could work anywhere.
But she said employers either can’t find a place for her skill set in their companies or they consider her overqualified for open positions. She hopes to work for a science or technology organization.
“I don’t care how much it pays,” Yi said. “I just care if it makes me excited.”
Topping the excitement of her last job will be difficult.
Korea’s space program started and ended with Yi. After the government announced the space-travel competition, she survived mental and physical tests, interviews and other challenges to make it into a group of 30 finalists. Then a TV show was launched, thrusting Yi into the public arena.
“It was almost like ‘American Idol’ stuff,” she said. “It was a huge national event.”
The South Korean government spent millions to send her and another finalist, Ko San, to train for more than a year in Russia in 2007. San was initially the primary candidate, with Yi serving as backup, until he violated regulations at the Russian training center.
Training in Russia as an Asian woman was tough, she said. She had to remind her male Russian colleagues that she could handle the job. When they’d utter condescending remarks because of her gender, she’d respond: “I’m not a woman. I’m an astronaut.”
Yi crawled into the shuttle 2½ hours before takeoff on April 8, 2008. She was shocked how quickly the time before launch passed.
“I didn’t feel nervous or scared at all,” she said.
Complications with equipment kept Yi and her crew guessing until the final minutes, but everything fell into place.
After the two-day journey to the International Space Station and more than a week conducting research there, she wasn’t ready for the experience to end.
“It was too short,” she said of the 11-day trip.
Yi said her space flight entirely changed her outlook on life.
“I’m a Christian, and sometimes I wonder why God made me the first Korean astronaut,” she said.
That question swirled in the back of her mind as she was strapped into her seat on the shuttle. Yi — who grew up in a family with limited income, and attended college thanks to a scholarship — said going to space was an existential experience that put into perspective just how randomly God places people in the world.
Gazing at earth from space for the first time, she pondered her place in a vast universe.
“It made you feel so calm,” she said. “It makes me think how big the Earth is and how small my country is.”
Although she’s still figuring it out, Yi knows that part of her purpose is to teach people to appreciate life, just as she learned to do after traveling where few have gone.
“I realize I’m so lucky,” she said. “I decided you should be grateful with whatever you have. I feel a huge responsibility to share that kind of philosophy with people.”
Out of many exciting moments from her space flight, Yi’s favorite part about her trip is predictably simple: “If you look at (Earth) through your own eyes, you never get bored.”
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