South Korea’s first astronaut blasts off

South Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, blasted off into space on Tuesday, prompting her mother, apparently overwhelmed by the occasion, to scream and fall to the ground.

In another historic first, one of her fellow cosmonauts, Sergei Volkov, followed in the footsteps of his father, celebrated Russian cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, the two forming the first space dynasty.

As the Russian Soyuz rocket soared into the clear blue sky from Baikonur cosmodrome, the Korean’s mother, Jung Kum Sun, let out a piercing scream and fell to the ground before being led away by doctors.

Korean space officials said the 57-year-old later recovered, explaining that she had collapsed briefly because she was ”very worried”.

A few minutes after the launch, Russian space control confirmed the Soyuz spacecraft with three astronauts on board had successfully reached orbit.

”It’s amazing! It’s fantastic!,” Sim Eunsup, director of the Korean Aerospace Research Institute, said as he walked away from a viewing platform.

Sim has said he would like Yi’s historic flight to signal the start of a manned space programme for the Asian economic giant.

The spacecraft was to spend two days travelling to the International Space Station, where Yi was to live with members of the orbiting station’s permanent crew before returning to Earth on April 19.

Earlier she said she hoped North Koreans would also share in her ”triumph” and that she could encourage reconciliation between the divided halves of the Korean peninsula.

Yi and the two Russian cosmonauts took off from the same launch pad in the arid Kazakh steppes where Yury Gagarin, the first human in space, began his famous flight in 1961.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, was one of several former cosmonauts who attended Tuesday’s launch. ”I’m happy for her,” she said.

Mission captain Sergei Volkov, making his debut flight, is the son of cosmonaut Alexander Volkov, who blasted off when the Soviet Union still existed to return to Earth only after its December 1991 collapse.

”It’s been difficult for me as a father,” said Alexander Volkov, who wore his Hero of the Soviet Union medal pinned on a dark suit, ahead of the launch. ”I know what he’s going to face and I know how tough it is … I’m worried of course but I’m very proud that my son has chosen to be a cosmonaut.”

The third crew member, Oleg Kononenko, is also a first-timer in space.

The Baikonur cosmodrome was built in Kazakhstan in the Soviet era and is now leased by Kazakh authorities to Russia. It is set in a vast plain dotted with debris from decades of space exploration.

After docking with the International Space Station, Yi has said she will celebrate the anniversary of Gagarin’s launch on April 12 with a spicy Korean feast and a surprise song for fellow crew members.

”I hope all the Russian guys and the American guys like my singing,” Yi joked with reporters last month at the training base in Star City outside Moscow where cosmonauts undergo gruelling tests for space flight.

At a press conference on the eve of her mission, Yi smiled and jumped up and down, waving to friends from behind a glass wall intended to protect astronauts from infection, as stern-faced Russian officials looked on.

Asked what her first reaction would be on reaching the space station, Yi said she would cry out: ”Like, wow!”

Korea will pay about $20-million for her mission.

South Korea has built its own rocket launch pad and is due to send up a satellite later this year. Officials said government funding for the space programme amounted to about $300-million last year.

A biosystems engineer, Yi will conduct 14 scientific experiments in space and said she hoped to encourage more Koreans to fly into space.

She was selected last month after engineering student Ko San, who had been due to fly for South Korea, was taken off the mission for breaching rules by taking manuals out of the high-security Star City training base. — Sapa-AFP

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Dario Thuburn
Dario Thuburn
Scribbler for AFP news agency

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