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Last Updated: Monday, 12 November 2007, 17:54 GMT
South Korea buys into space dream
By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

Ko San, undated handout image
Ko San is due to blast off in 2008
A televised talent contest may be a good way of choosing a pop star, but South Korea has gone one better.

The country now has its first astronaut, picked from 36,000 hopefuls who entered a competition.

But behind the hype there is a serious purpose. South Korea is investing heavily in space technology and is due to launch its first rocket next year.

Kim Chang-Woo, director general for space technology at the Ministry of Science and Technology, says the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars with the ambition of joining the top 10 space-faring nations within a decade.

"We want to raise the dreams and hopes of the young generation for the space programme," he says.

"We want to make space science more popular. So that's why we opened the astronaut selection to the entire population."

Military use?

Putting the first Korean into space is one thing, but the real prize for all the investment is an independent rocket capability allowing South Korea to put its own satellites into space.

Off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula the country's first launch pad is under construction.

This is above money, it's about developing as a nation and that's why we do it
Paik Hong-yul
Korea Aerospace Research Institute

The brand-new Naro Space Centre, being built on an island 500km (300 miles) south of Seoul, is a major project.

Tonnes of earth have been cut away from the side of a mountain to create the flattened area for the launch towers.

But not everyone is ready to welcome the arrival of South Korea as a space power.

"This is dual-use technology," according to Daniel Pinkston from the conflict prevention think-tank, the International Crisis Group.

He believes that the ability to put rockets into space could have a military application, potentially altering the strategic balance in East Asia.

The United States in particular, he says, has not been keen to help the South Koreans develop their own space programme.

"They did go to the Americans, and expected them to be forthcoming and provide the technology transfers. But in fact the US government, because of proliferation concerns, has blocked them."

'Courage and dreams'

So the South Koreans have turned to the Russians for help. At a price, of course.

The first rocket launch is now expected to take place towards the end of next year.

It will carry a 100kg (220lb) multi-purpose science satellite into low-Earth orbit.

A model of the rocket due to be launched next year
South Korea's KSLV-1 rocket has been built but not launched

But the hope is that within a few years this new venture will be a revenue-earner.

The ambition is to corner up to 10% of the international space market, selling technology and providing launch services to other nations.

So the towering cost of South Korea's space programme is justified by its government in terms of long-term commercial benefits and national pride.

And Paik Hong-yul, president of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute insists that the intentions are entirely peaceful.

"Our space programme is about courage and dreams," he tells me.

"This is above money, it's about developing as a nation and that's why we do it."

The Russians are also being paid to train South Korea's first astronaut.

The lucky winner, having survived a series of gruelling mental and physical tests for the televised competition, is a 30-year-old research scientist, Ko San.

He is due to fly with two Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station in 2008, becoming the first spaceman from a country rushing to join the space race.



SEE ALSO
Beijing 'planning space station'
07 Nov 07 |  Asia-Pacific
South Korea picks first astronaut
05 Sep 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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