Yi So-yeon waves before launch in Kazakhstan in 2008. She is coming to Stanwood to talk about her experience as South Korea’s first and only astronaut to fly to the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy of Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano)

Yi So-yeon waves before launch in Kazakhstan in 2008. She is coming to Stanwood to talk about her experience as South Korea’s first and only astronaut to fly to the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy of Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano)

Korea’s first and only astronaut shares her story in Stanwood

Yi So-yeon spent nine days aboard the International Space Station — then had a rough return landing on Earth.

Eleven days in space can change your perspective.

After a stay at the International Space Station, Yi So-yeon found herself grateful for the Earth.

“I realized that I should be grateful for all that I have — my friends, siblings, parents, teachers and colleagues … as well as the wind, the sky, the stars, the moon, the mountains, the air,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Herald.

Yi, 41, is the first and only Korean to fly in space. An astronaut and scientist, she flew to the International Space Station in 2008 for nine days of research. She was in space for a total of 261 hours — just three hours shy of 11 days.

The former Everett Community College physics instructor will share her story as South Korea’s first and still only astronaut in a “To The Moon and Beyond” lecture on Nov. 23 at the Stanwood High School Performing Arts Center.

In 2006, Yi was working on a Ph.D. at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology when she was selected by South Korea’s space program from 36,000 applicants to train in Russia for a flight to the International Space Station.

On April 8, 2008, Yi blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft with Russian cosmonauts Sergey Volkov and Oleg Kononenko.

Yi said training for the mission itself wasn’t hard. The challenge was learning to speak enough Russian in just six months in order to train for the flight.

Over the mission’s nine days, Yi carried out 18 experiments and medical tests for the Korea Aerospace Research Institute. Most of the tests involved how scientific phenomena changes in space.

She monitored the effects of zero gravity on fruit flies, plant seeds and her own heart, eyes and facial shape. She also observed the movement of dust storms from China to Korea.

During her stay at the International Space Station, Yi never tired of looking at the Earth. Whenever she woke up in the middle of the night, she would climb out of her sleeping bag and float over to her cabin’s window for another look.

“Our beautiful planet, Earth, is the greatest gift from God,” she said. “I believe that we have an obligation to share it fairly with everyone, to preserve it to the best of our ability, and to hand it over to the next generation in as good a condition as when received.”

She nearly died coming back to Earth — though she didn’t know it at the time.

On the return trip with American astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko in the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft, the equipment and re-entry modules didn’t properly separate before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

The malfunction put the spacecraft on a re-entry trajectory that subjected the crew to nearly 16Gs of force, or 16 times the force of gravity, compared to the normal Soyuz re-entry force of 4.5Gs.

The spacecraft had a rough landing in Kazakhstan, 260 miles from its target. Kazakh nomads were the first to find the wayward capsule.

“We didn’t know how serious it was,” Yi said. “We only knew it was not normal, and the computer changed the re-entry mode to ballistic re-entry. However, after getting back, during the investigation team’s brief, we got to know it was really dangerous for us.”

Yi said she wishes South Korea’s $20 million contract with Russia had lasted more than three years. It meant she was and still is the only Korean to fly in space. She hopes to see at least two more Koreans in space within the next decade. (Retired NASA astronaut Mark Polansky, who logged more than 300 hours in space, is Korean-American.)

“It’s a great honor to be the first and only astronaut of South Korea, but at the same time I’m kind of alone,” she said. “I have a huge responsibility, and much more eyes watching me is sometimes hard to handle.”

She said she is fortunate to be an astronaut — not because she beat out 35,999 applicants — but because of the era in which we live.

Yi, who grew up in Gwangju, South Korea, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, followed by a Ph.D. in biological science from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Taejon. She also earned an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley.

She left the South Korean space program in 2014, then taught physics at Everett Community College in 2016. Now a Puyallup resident, Yi works with South Korean-based Studio XID and California-based Loft Orbital Solutions.

Yi, who also lectures at the University of Washington, said she is focused on nurturing the next generation of STEM (science, techology, engineering and mathematics) leaders.

“The next generation is really important,” she said. “They are the future.”

Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; sbruestle@heraldnet.com; @sarabruestle.

Next generation

Meet the next generation of STEM leaders in Stanwood.

Cole Welch, a Running Start student at Everett Community College, will be demonstrating LEGO robotics before Yi So-yeon’s talk.

A LEGO robotics instructor for the Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano, Welch, 18, teaches children how to build and program Mindstorms EV3 robots.

“We’re building the robots to help (the kids) learn,” he said. “We build different ones each month.”

The high school senior likes to do math in his spare time. He competes in local Knowledge and Science bowls through Stanwood High School.

“I love to see how seemingly abstract math concepts can be applied very practically,” he said.

Welch is interested in majoring in physics and math at one of the eight colleges for which he’s applied. He knows he wants to go into research, but hasn’t figured out what he’ll research just yet.

He thinks it’s cool that Yi taught physics at his community college. “I’m really interested in what she has to say,” Welch said. If he were only a few years older, he might have been able to take her class.

Ramona Reed, a sixth-grader at Stanwood Middle School, is serving as an assistant to event coordinator Christine Russell. She said Yi is her idol and that she can’t wait to meet the astronaut.

The 11-year-old said science and math are by far her favorite subjects. She asks for extra assignments from her STEM teachers. Her science fair research topics have included black holes and how best to calm a stressed horse. One of her hobbies is coding (another is riding horses).

When she grows up, Ramona expects to take over the family business — Interface Technologies Northwest in Lynnwood — but not before she gets her Ph.D. in physics.

Her advice for future STEM leaders? Make sure you’re passionate.

“If you want to do science, you have to be able to put the work into it or put your mind to it,” she said. “If you don’t actually like it, there’s no point in doing it.”

She likened finding yourself in a STEM career that doesn’t make you happy to getting sucked into a black hole: “You’re stuck in that black hole, and you’re not going to be able to get out.”

If you go

South Korea’s first and still only astronaut, Yi So-yeon will talk on “To The Moon and Beyond” from 4 to 6 p.m. Nov. 23 at the Stanwood High School Performing Arts Center, 7400 272nd St. NW, Stanwood. Pre-lecture STEM activities and live music are scheduled for 3 p.m.

Yi’s Stanwood visit is sponsored by the Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano, Sno-Isle Libraries and the city of Stanwood.

Although the event is free, tickets are required. All tickets are spoken for. Call 360-629-5257, ext. 1002, to be put on a waiting list for returned tickets. Seating is first come, first served.

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