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South Korea’s first—and only—astronaut just quit her job, ending the country’s manned space program

August 12, 2014
August 12, 2014

It was something of a lark all along.

South Korea started its space program in 2006 with a national search for qualified astronaut candidates. The country doesn’t have the technological infrastructure to blast a human into orbit, but it partnered with Russia—as does the US, for now—to send the winner, engineer Yi So-yeon, to the International Space Station in 2008 for a 10-day trip focused on science experiments and publicity. Today, the Korean Aerospace Institute announced that she had resigned for personal reasons, ending the program.

Yi’s decision has some in South Korea wondering if the $28 million the country spent to put her in space was worth it. While the project added South Korea to the list of 35 countries that have sent their citizens into orbits—and made it one of only three whose first astronaut was a woman—the scientific value of the exercise was somewhat questionable. The program did not include the technological and engineering development often used to justify manned spaceflight. One reason for that absence was the fear of the United States, a key ally of South Korea, that rocket development could exacerbate an arms race with North Korea. More recently, however, South Korea has been developing a satellite program, with its first launch completed in 2013.

Only China, Russia and the US have ever actually built spacecraft to send people into space (though the US is now technically unable to do so until it chooses one of three private companies competing to handle America’s next round of manned space flight in the next few weeks). Even in the US, manned spaceflight is somewhat controversial—there is little agreement on the appropriate missions for astronauts, whether it be research in orbiting space stations or bolder ventures to the moon or Mars, and on whether the benefits in discovery and prestige are worth the billions of dollars such a program would cost.

As for Yi’s next move, she may find a way to become a different and perhaps more valuable role model to South Koreans. After her trip to space, she took time off to pursue an MBA at the University of California, Berkeley, and she told Businessweek that she wanted to “serve as a bridge between science geeks and businesspeople.” If she does wind up pursuing work in the private sector, it could send an important message in South Korea, a country having trouble bringing enough women into the workforce.

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