As the first Korean to fly into outer space, 39-year-old Soyeon Yi has received her fair share of questions about what her experience was like as an astronaut.
Many of those questions she gets from children, who dream of one day taking the trip to outer space themselves.
But Yi never had such a dream when she was a kid.
“Korea didn’t have a space agency when I was a kid,” said Yi, who now lives in Puyallup. “I never dreamed to be a celebrity… I couldn’t even imagine that.”
Korea didn't have a space agency when I was a kid. I never dreamed to be a celebrity… I couldn't even imagine that.
Soyeon Yi, first Korean astronaut
But there was one thing she always knew about herself.
“I was always a curious person,” she said.
It was that curiosity that sparked inside Yi when she saw that South Korea was taking applications to launch someone into space. Yi was 26 at the time, with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.
“I read it and I thought it was interesting,” Yi said.
She brought up the idea to apply with a group of friends one night.
“All my friends said, ‘Are you serious?’ And I said I wanted to apply,” Yi remembered. “I applied to be an astronaut out of curiosity.”
Out of 36,000 applicants, Yi was in the top 5,000. Then the top 300. Then the top 30.
There were times when she could hardly believe it.
“Once you read that (number), you realize you can’t make it,” she said.
But she did, and in 2008, she was launched into space. She spent more than a week at the International Space Station.
“I just loved it,” she said. “Eleven days was too short.”
When she returned, Yi’s fame continued. She was on the front of magazines and attending events.
“Every day I’d have things from 5 in the morning to midnight,” Yi said. “I had a really busy life in Korea and I needed some recharging time.”
Every day I’d have things from 5 in the morning to midnight. I had a really busy life in Korea and I needed some recharging time.
In 2010, she enrolled at University of California, Berkeley, where she earned her master’s degree in business and met her husband. They married in 2013, and moved to Puyallup in 2014, where he works as an optometrist. After teaching at Pierce College for several years, she started teaching physics this semester at the University of Washington Tacoma.
But she doesn’t want her experience in the space industry to end just yet, and hopes to get involved in commercial space.
For now, she enjoys the quieter lifestyle she has in Puyallup.
“Not many people know that I’m here,” she said.
And she’s still more than happy to attend the occasional local event to talk about her astronaut experience.
I think it is wonderful to meet a lot of diverse people,” she said.
Soyeon will be at the 2017 Puyallup Festival of Books on Saturday (Oct. 7), where she will talk alongside author Nathalia Holt, whose most recent release, “Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars,” follows the role women played in the space industry.
With a Ph.D. in microbiology and numerous publications, Holt has always been interested in science. But it wasn’t until she was researching a name for her daughter that she came across the name Eleanor Francis Helin, an American astronomer.
“I was just so struck by this image of her accepting an award at NASA. That’s really how this obsession started — I wanted to learn more about where these women were,” Holt said.
Holt spent six years tracking down the women that helped launch America into space.
“I always love getting to meet readers and talking about these women,” Holt said.
Holt and Yi have never met, but the two are both excited to have a conversation together — and they encourage all those who are curious about science to attend.
For more information about the other authors attending Books, Brews and Bites: Festival of Books 2017 on Friday and Saturday (Oct. 6 and 7), visit puyalluplibrary.org.