Soyeon Yi grew up in a small farming town in South Korea where most of the women in her mother’s generation didn’t go to school. Her grandmother and her peers were forbidden from even learning to read or write. Yi formed an early love of science and engineering, and followed her passion all the way into the Korean space program, becoming the first female astronaut in the nation’s history, and one of only 200 or so people who have ever been to the International Space Station. She is one of a handful of astronauts featured in Secret Space Escapes, a new series documenting dramatic encounters in space, airing on Science Channel on January 12.
Yi, who now lives in Seattle with her husband, talks about the deep gender divide in Korea and how that helped her excel in the space program, what it’s like to look back at the earth from above, and her hopes and dreams for a simple-yet-meaningful life.
I grew up in a small farming town in South Korea. I had really happy memories during my childhood, even though we struggled. What inspired me to be a scientist or engineer was my dad. He had a talent for fixing machines. I was always his no. 1 assistant since about age 10. I remember resetting our boiler, replacing pipes and our floor. These are some of my sweetest memories. Only now do I realize that it’s because we were so poor that my dad had to do it all himself.
Thanks to Korea’s education system, every city has a gifted program. During my middle school, I applied, took the exam, and got in to Gwangju Science High School, which was intense in science and engineering. The top engineering colleges all recruited from that high school.
Most high school students in Korea go to college after their third year. But many gifted students, many of my friends and peers, would get selected during their second year if they finished all of their curriculum. All of my friends got accepted, but I didn’t. I was disappointed. A year later, I got accepted to a school called the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. It’s Korea’s version of MIT. I studied mechanical engineering in undergraduate and graduate programs, and switched to biosystems for my Ph.D.
It was a very interesting time for bioengineering. It was a new field of study. We didn’t have advanced curriculum or experts who had done it before. So I got a scholarship to go to U.C. Berkeley as an exchange student during the first year of my Ph.D. It opened my eyes to the global science stage.
Inside of Korea, many people didn’t consider me a researcher. Men often come to the master’s or Ph.D. program after their military service, meaning most of my colleagues are also older than me, and 99 percent of them are guys. Often when I got phone calls in the lab, I’d hear, “I want to talk to the researcher, not the secretary.” Some of the guys even told me directly that they preferred working with or talking to male researchers.
When I was about 24, I had my first presentation of my research [in biosystems] in Japan. There were 30 to 40 countries represented, and I was the only woman presenting on my day and maybe the youngest person overall. It made me stand out. It felt like a challenge, but I realized people were excited to see me. Everyone noticed my career and my work. It made me feel unique.
I had an internship during undergrad at the Korean Institute of Machinery and Materials. They specialized in photo research and development. I had a lot of chances to collaborate with the top scientists at Samsung, LG, and other big technology brands. It was a huge opportunity. Working with so many brilliant minds, and frequently being the only woman, I often thought, Am I smart enough? Am I able to be this kind of person in the future?
During my Ph.D. I applied for the Korean Astronaut Program. I was reading the newspaper and it said that Korea was beginning their own astronaut program along with 20 to 30 other countries. The minister of science and technology in Korea was going to make room for one astronaut from Korea to go to the International Space Station. I was following all of this with anticipation. When I was a kid, I loved to watch sci-fi movies. I often daydreamed of taking a train into space. Finally, they announced that there was funding from the government and there was an open application. Anyone who was 19 or older, in good health, and had Korean citizenship could apply. There were 36,000 candidates in the first round — schoolteachers, policeman, nurses, doctors — and I made it to the final two.
Some of my friends said, “You’re crazy. You’re almost done with a Ph.D. Focus on your research and find your own job.” Other friends were really excited for the challenge and cheered me on.
When I was accepted, I went to Russia to train for a year as backup crew for the Korean astronauts. Not only did I have to go to Russia, it was on a military base. It was a huge culture shock. I felt comfortable working with a bunch of guys on that Russian military base. I had been thrust into those kinds of positions [as the only woman] for more than 10 years.
During training, I learned about basic theory of space flight and properties of a rocket. I needed to know how everything worked because if anything happened, I would be in charge of fixing it. We had a lot of simulations, checking every step, learning how to walk in zero gravity and work with other crew inside the capsule.
My job was as senior researcher and astronaut. I was backup crew at the time, but I was learning all of Korea’s experiments that were planned for the International Space Station — from testing the life span of fruit flies in space to observing how plants grow without gravity.
A month before launch, the Korean government made me a primary crew member [due to a classified issue]. I was scheduled to launch in April 2008.
Everybody asks me if I felt scared. But I didn’t have any time or space in my brain to think about fear. There were so many things going on. Before space flight, everything needs to be perfect. One tiny problem can cancel the flight. We were inside the capsule and my commander’s space suit had a problem. We’re inside praying, “Please let us fly.” Finally, we heard, “You’re good to go.” There was a huge vibration, a shock, and after 10 minutes, we felt zero gravity. Our bodies were floating even in our tight seat belts. We were all yelling like crazy, so excited we were finally in space.
You never get bored in space or of that view of the earth. Even if I describe it for two days and nights, or a whole month, I cannot do it justice. It’s so amazing. It looks just like it does on Google Earth, but it’s alive. I held my breath and looked for my country. It takes only 90 minutes to make a full orbit of the earth and only a few seconds to pass Korea. It makes you feel very small. It was the biggest mindfulness moment of my life.
Growing up, no one could have imagined that I would become an astronaut. My mom didn’t even go to middle school. My grandmother cannot read or write. She grew up around the Koran War when women were not allowed to be educated. Thirty years later, I became a [doctor of philosophy] and the first Korean woman astronaut. Within 60 years, Korean women’s history was totally changed. I am so proud to be a part of that.
I moved to the U.S. three years ago. It was hard to leave Korea, but the astronaut program ended and I thought I should find my next career. I went back to U.C. Berkeley for an MBA. Business is a totally different thing. Even though I was an astronaut, studying something new is very hard. My classmates are brilliant, smart kids from around the world, and I got put on academic probation. I successfully graduated in 2014, moved to Seattle, and now I’m looking for my new career.
I don’t want a simple job to make money. I want to take advantage of my skills. It’s not easy finding the right fit with my background. When I apply for some positions, I can feel they just want to talk to an astronaut, not interview me. I just want to be a woman next door. I wasn’t born into a special situation. My parents are normal Korean citizens. I did my best to follow my dreams and follow my passion, and that made me an astronaut. Even people who have had huge achievements can be the girl next door. It’s where we all start. We don’t know who we will become.