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South Koreans race for space

September 8, 2006 By Ichiko Fuyuno This article courtesy of Nature News.

Fast runners qualify for astronaut selection.

Last Saturday, South Korea hosted a 3.5-kilometre running race with the aim of selecting the fittest participants for its fledgling space programme. But although 10,000 people had been invited to prove their worth by running the course in under 20 minutes, only 3,300 people bothered to show up.

Largely due to a lack of money and expertise, Korea's space programme began only in the 1990s. Following a 2004 agreement in which Russia promised to help train Korean astronauts, a three-year US$26-million astronaut programme took off in November 2005.

The country's entire space budget is some US$300 million dollars this year only a fifth of Japan's budget, and a small percentage of NASA's $16.6 billion. But it has set an ambitious goal to become one of the top ten countries in space research by 2015. As a step in this direction, South Korea plans to have an astronaut in space by 2008.

"Korea wants to be seen as a major space country, and it is hard to do that without having its citizens flying in space," says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington DC. He says Korea is currently in the top 20 countries involved in space research, thanks mainly to their satellite programme, and is quickly moving up.

Quick starter

The entry criteria for the astronaut programme were very open: anyone aged 19 or older with a Korean citizenship could apply. No science background was required. Initially, 36,000 people sent an application form, and 10,000 were selected to participate in the race (on the basis of physical criteria and written essays about why they wanted to be an astronaut).

Only a third showed up - perhaps because many applicants weren't being totally serious. But Gi-Hyuk Choi, director of the astronaut programme at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), thinks the approach was a success: 96% of the participating runners passed the test, despite the summer heat.

By October, the Ministry of Science and Technology and KARI will conduct writing tests and medical checkups to select 300 candidates. They will whittle these down to two final candidates by the end of December, and then send them to Russia for training. One of the two will go on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft in 2008, and spend a week at the International Space Station.

To keep public support of the astronaut programme and advertise its progress, the government has signed a contract with a private TV broadcaster.

It is unclear what the astronaut will do once in space public outreach and some sort of basic scientific experiments are on the agenda. One local report has suggested they might use the time to test a bacterium found in kimchi, a popular spicy food made of fermented vegetables, which is thought to have anti-cancer activity.

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