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[Beyond Earth] ‘Space can give dreams to children’

Korean American NASA ambassador underlines space’s unlimited possibilities

April 17, 2023 - 15:01 By Kan Hyeong-woo
Paul Yun, a mathematics professor at El Camino College and Korean American solar system ambassador of NASA, speaks during the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute on Oct. 28, 2015, in Houston. (NASA)

Space is not just about new opportunities for future industry, but changing perspectives and presenting challenges and dreams for generations to come, says Paul Yun, a Korean American solar system ambassador for NASA.

“What would be wise for Korea is to utilize space to its fullest to bring out every positive factor from it. If space can become a bigger area, not all smart children will be trying to go to medical school. If more children chase space-related dreams, Korea’s space ecosystem will grow naturally and have a bright future,” Yun told The Korea Herald in a video interview last week.

The ambassador for the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, who currently works as a mathematics professor at El Camino College in Torrance, California, noted that there are no clear rules in the global space race yet, adding that a player who can come up with the basic rules of the game will take the lead, and South Korea can be that player if it can paint the bigger picture.

“As the world tries to march into space, it will be about who makes the rules of space and can help all of humanity in a reasonable manner. A player who looks at the bigger picture will make the rules,” he said.

Yun took the example of the early 2000s when not many realized what the internet was becoming and the giant impact it would have on industry and the economy, noting that IT giants such as Microsoft established the basic rules of cyberspace.

“We witnessed what happened with the virtual space. I think it was a preparation for the real space,” he said, indicating how the space industry and economy can grow exponentially.

Despite Korea’s late start in the global space race, Yun pointed to space manufacturing, space mining, space tourism and space sports as future products and services that the country can look ahead to and begin preparations now for the long term.

Korea has been gearing up to invigorate the space sector on the back of recent milestones such as launching the Nuri rocket, which made Korea the seventh country in the world with the capability to put a satellite weighing more than 1 ton into orbit, and the Danuri, also known as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter.

President Yoon Suk Yeol and the current administration have set out ambitious goals of landing on the moon in 2031 and on Mars in 2045. On top of its grand blueprint, the government is pushing to establish a Korean version of NASA, tentatively named the Korea Space and Aeronautics Administration, by the end of this year.

Yun said the country’s current atmosphere resembles that of the US in the late 1960s when mankind took the first steps on the moon in the Apollo mission.

“When the Apollo mission succeeded, the (US) people went thrilled. But it was difficult to keep it up because it was costing too much money. I think it’s important to let the people know how their taxes can be used to foster society and help various sectors grow to maintain the public’s support,” he said.

Paul Yun's NASA solar system ambassador badge (Paul Yun)

The professor pointed out that there are now some 1,000 NASA solar system ambassadors, whereas there were about 420 of them when he was first appointed a NASA ambassador in 2012. Born in Korea, Yun has lived in the US since 1986.

Regarding the establishment of the KSAA, Yun underscored the importance of a government body that can coordinate different ministries and organizations involved in space projects.

“Space is not just about science or exploration. It has industrial and security aspects. There will also be diplomatic issues. (The KSAA) will have to play the role of a facilitator that can handle these various aspects in regard to space,” he said.

Mentioning how long it takes K-pop artists to rise to stardom and the necessary investments of time and money, Yun advised that the government should take the helm in investing in the space ecosystem and nurturing startups through early phases.

For the private space sector, the NASA ambassador advised companies to integrate and explained that firms have to look for areas where they can apply their products and services by tailoring them to the new environment.

“Space should not be a separate business area. Samsung, for instance, can develop space-grade semiconductors. Over 90 countries are launching satellites and more want to go out to space. They can be customers. Hyundai Motor is very good at creating hydrogen energy. That can be a required technology in space,” he said.

Yun also noted the case of Boryung, a traditional Korean health care company that announced the establishment of a joint venture with US commercial space station developer Axiom Space in March this year. The drugmaking company has set eyes on the space health care industry as its future growth engine.