South Korean astronaut brings story down to earth

EVERETT — The story about the trip into space started with a song.

South Korea’s first astronaut, Soyeon Yi, showed a 2008 video clip of herself, outside of her sleeping quarters at the International Space Station. With a smile on her face, and her long black hair tied back in a ponytail, Yi started singing several verses of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“I sang in space,” said Yi, 34.

Yi told her story Friday to a small crowd at the Everett Golf and Country Club. On April 8, 2008, she and two Russian cosmonauts boarded Russian spacecraft Soyuz TMA-12 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for a 10-day space mission.

Yi is visiting friends in Seattle this week and was invited to be a guest speaker at an afternoon meeting of the South Everett-Mukilteo Rotary Club.

Yi said her experience began in September 2006 as one of more than 36,000 people who applied to the South Korean Astronaut Program to be the first South Korean to go into space. At the time, she had already earned bachelor and master of science degrees in mechanical engineering from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and was working toward earning her doctorate. Her goal was to register and qualify as one of 245 people who moved on to the second round in the selection process.

“They told me anyone who was at least 19 years old could apply,” she said. “I told my friends, ‘I know I will not make it, but when I am a grandma or a mom … I might be able to tell my children I knew the first Korean astronaut.”

Yi was excited when she was chosen to move on. A few months later, on Dec. 25, 2006, she was announced as one of the two finalists.

“There was my name and I was so shocked,” Yi said.

She trained for the opportunity to be part of a space mission for about a year but wasn’t surprised when in September 2007, the other finalist, Ko San, was selected to make the trip. Yi would be the alternate.

“It’s a privilege for a woman to be in space,” she said. “My mother prayed for me to be the backup rather than the primary because she didn’t want me to fly. She didn’t want to lose me. She told me, ‘This is a man’s job and not your job; you stay on the Earth.’”

A month before the launch, she was selected to make the journey instead of San, Yi said. She’s unsure why.

“I felt so happy and honored,” she said.

The actual mission went as planned until April 19, 2008, when Yi, American astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, were traveling back to Earth in Soyuz TMA-11. The crew followed and executed a “ballistic re-entry” that caused severe gravitational forces during their descent. The space capsule landed 260 miles off its mark in northern Kazakhstan.

Yi and the others were lost for about 30 minutes, she said. They were eventually discovered unharmed by search helicopters.

“We just followed our training,” Yi said. “I felt like I was in a movie. It was a really memorable kind of moment.”

Yi moved to California earlier this year to begin studying for a master of business administration at the University of California, Berkeley. She also spoke in May at the Future of Flight Aviation Center in Mukilteo and visited Mariner and Kamiak high schools and Everett Community College.

Yi said she enjoys giving public presentations and inspiring others, especially Korean children, to follow their own dreams.

“I tell them, that if you make your dream come true then (your family) will be proud of you,” she said.

Rotarians appreciated hearing Yi’s story, said Julie Lienhard, club president.

“It was dazzling to me to have a woman astronaut here and from a country that we don’t even know much about,” she said.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

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