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What space race?

Oct 28,2019
CHOI JOON-HO
The author is the head of the science & future team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Many things can be taken for granted. I don’t mean just family, loved ones, or country. We rarely appreciate Korean corporations who are battling to stay competitive in the rapidly changing world.

I was in Washington last week attending the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) commemorating the “one giant leap for mankind” — the 50th anniversary of human’s landing on the moon — when I received a press release from home. It was from KAIST, inviting the press to a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of its Satellite Technology Research Centre (SaTReC).

Among the guests were the family of late Choi Soon-dal, the founding head of the institute who pioneered Korea’s satellite program, including the nation’s first small satellite Uribyeol 1 in 1992.

The scientist, who also served as the communication minister in the 1980s, studied electrical engineering at Standford University and worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1969 to 1976 before returning home to set up the satellite research center at KAIST. He taught students and sent them to Surrey University in Britain to create a generation of space scientists and engineers.

The SaTReC Eye, which commanded a small space in the KAIST SaTReC booth at this year’s IAC, is a satellite making company created by Kaist students that studied in Britain. Those days, there were not any policies or financial backing to encourage innovation in start-ups.
The company now exports satellites to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Although its revenue stops at around 46 billion won ($39.2 million), it sustains a profit margin of more than 10 percent and boasts a backlog of 100 billion won in overseas orders. It is a rare Korean space name that earns foreign revenue.

Even small countries like Luxembourg eagerly pursue their ambitious space policies through a state ministry. Korea Inc., however, is on its own to explore the space as the government apparently lacks any interest.