From: Reuters
Published January 15, 2008 05:39 PM

First Korean astronaut to take soil into space

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - A South Korean scientist and amateur boxer soon to become his country's first astronaut said on Tuesday he would bring soil from each side of the divided Korean peninsula and mix them together in space during his flight.

"We still think this is one country," Ko San told reporters on a televised news conference. "So I'm going to bring the soil of North and South (Korea). I'm going to mix them up in space."

Ko, 31, will launch in April aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket along with cosmonauts Sergei Volkov, who will be replacing NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson as commander of the International Space Station, and flight engineer Oleg Kononenko.

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Ko returns to Earth with Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko after spending 10 days in space conducting experiments.

"Our government has long-term plans for the space program," Ko said. "We don't know if we can send another astronaut or not, but we will continue our experiments. We have plans for moon exploration. I and (backup Yi So-yeon) are going to work in that field after this."

Ko was selected from among 36,000 applicants to represent his country on a mission estimated to cost about $28 million.

After studying mathematics and cognitive science at Seoul National University, Ko was working at the Korea Aerospace Research Institute on computer vision systems when he saw an advertisement for the astronaut's job.

"I just couldn't help applying," said Ko. "We couldn't even imagine that in our generation we could send an astronaut to space. It was just amazing."

"I think I was not the best one, but I was the luckiest one. I'm so blessed," added Ko, who won a bronze medal in a 2004 national amateur boxing contest.

The $100 billion space station is about 60 percent finished and NASA needs to complete the job by 2010 when its space shuttle fleet is due for retirement.

The first three shuttle flights of the year are reserved for hauling partner modules owned by Europe and Japan to the outpost.

NASA has targeted February 7 for the launch of shuttle Atlantis carrying Europe's Columbus laboratory, which will become Europe's first permanent science outpost in orbit. The mission was delayed from December due to problems with a fuel sensor.

(Editing by Michael Christie and Cynthia Osterman)

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