Yi So-Yeon, S. Korea's First Astronaut, Who Didn't Mean to Be One at All

Yi So-Yeon, the first and only South Korean astronaut, reached space when she was 29. It wasn’t easy, but what is?

Yi So-Yeon is just happy to be here. She is so grateful, in fact, she can't help but jump from joy, both feet in the air. Yi So-Yeon does this wherever she goes – she's just happy to be. Period.

And after a couple of hours with her, you'll be happy to be too.

Yi So-Yeon is an astronaut. Astronauts are usually tall, beefy former military officers in their 30s and 40s, and they're usually American or Russian. They are not, in general, short, frail-looking South-Korean, ankle-braceleted lab-rats in their late 20s with Ph.D.s in engineering.

But still, Yi So-Yeon reached space, and she was the first person in history to do it before she turned 30. And she did it almost by accident, in a country that has a hard time allowing women to fit in and climb its social, political and business ranks.
How did she do it? By chance.

Yi, now 34, talks fast and adds a lot of adjectives to everything she says. Every opportunity is "huge." Every positive experience is "so amazing." But when telling about the time she started her B.A. studies at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and had to go to the bathroom - her list of emphatic adjectives suddenly contracts.

"In the faculty building there were no bathrooms for women," she tells TheMarker, during her visit to Israel. "When they built the building they included a women's bathroom, but then there was no need for it so they made it a men's bathroom as well. There were only two women in my class, including me, you see. It's not uncommon in South Korea for a building to not have a women's bathroom. Even today, many times I enter a room and there are about ten guys and only one woman: Me."

In 2006, Yi beat out 36,000 other applicants to become one of the finalists in a nationwide contest for a seat on a flight to International Space Station and the prestigious title of First Korean Astronaut. But Yi never wanted to be an astronaut. In her eyes, such a thing wasn't even possible. But she applied for the job anyway, because why not?

"At best, I hoped to make it to the final 300 and thought it could be a great line for my resume," she says.

Only when she made it to the final 36 did she tell her family and friends what she then referred to as her "big secret." She then found herself among the final six, and then the final two candidates.

She didn't actually win the contest. The winner was more fitting of the typical astronaut profile: A former military officer, and more importantly, a man. But Yi joined him anyway for a year-long cosmonaut training in Russia as his understudy.

When he was booted out by the Russian space agency for not following protocol and being less than adept with the required scientific experiments, the door was finally open for her – a scientist - to go to space. She was 29 at the time, making her both the youngest astronaut ever, and the first Korean in space. These two facts made her a national and international celebrity. Every night millions in South Korea watched her broadcasting live from the ISS.

And not that it was all roses from there. Flying to the ISS on top of a Soyuz rocket, Yi found it extremely difficult to adjust to the conditions in space. Because she was drastically younger than the other astronauts and her spine was more flexible, she immediately grew three centimeters in height. The back pains, she says, were horrible. Her face became puffy – online you can still find comparisons of her face before her excursion to space, after and during. She suffered headaches and nausea. And she had to work, work, work.

"They gave me 18 experiments to complete in my 10 days in the ISS. That's a lot," she says. "Everyone told me I didn't have to complete all of them, that it wasn't expected of me. But I knew everyone was watching me, so I gave up meals and sleep and completed all 18 experiments. It's a very Korean thing to do."

She was also incredibly aware of the unique combination of luck and talent that propelled her to her position.

"Only in space did I realize how lucky I am to be Korean," she says. "Only in Korea could I have gone to space before turning 30 years old."

On her last day on the ISS, she fulfilled a dream no astronaut had before: She sang her favorite song, "Fly me to the Moon" by Frank Sinatra, in space.

Her return flight to earth, unfortunately, wasn't any easier. The Soyuz diverged from its planned route by more than 400 kilometers. She was immediately hospitalized on her return because of back problems.

Yi is now working as a researcher and ambassador of the Korean space agency (KARI), trying to encourage young people – especially women – to make a career in science. She travels all over the world, telling her story, taking photos of herself jumping in the air, not letting her celebrity get the best of her. When meeting Israeli president Shimon Peres, she poses for him for her iPhone, so she can upload the photo to instagram.

Her return to earth required more than just a physical adjustment. When she broke through the stratosphere, she was newly famous and instantly recognizable.

"When I returned, thousands of people waited for me and shouted my name. I began to feel like my life was not my life anymore. It wasn't easy. I am just a scientist that unexpectedly became a celebrity. I am now more accustomed to it, but it's still a huge burden. If you ask me what's harder, being famous or flying to space, I'd say fame is much harder," she says.

It also took a toll on her personal life. "I really want to be married, but it's hard to find the right man. Maybe I'll go to the Wailing Wall and leave a note to God: Find me a husband!", she says, laughing.

These days, Yi is driven in part by motivating women. "I keep telling women I mentor, 'Don't think of yourselves as women. You are not women. You are people. Don't victimize yourself.' The fact that I'm a women is my greatest advantage, because it makes me work so much harder. Even when I know I am being discriminated against, I try not to think of myself that way, work harder and work the situation to my advantage."

But still, there is a lot of work to be done. "Confucian culture is very masculine, but I think Korean society is changing," she says. "One of my professors asked me once, because he was so impressed with me, 'How can we rally more women to study science?' I told him what I am telling you now: 'Build a women's bathroom.'"

David Bachar